THE UNIVERSE etc.
January 8, 2006 10:12 PM   Subscribe

Do we live in a natural world or a supernatural world?

These days, I lean towards the former, but I could be convinced otherwise with a solid pummeling of persuasive arguments, essays, rants, websites, diatribes, etc.

Where do you stand in the debate? Are you a theist? An atheist? An agnostic? Why or why not? Does the possibility of a godless universe depress you or excite you?

Similarly, is the universe a cold, lonely place with only rare occurences of life, or is it teeming with life? Why or why not?
posted by iced_borsch to Religion & Philosophy (61 answers total)
 
Unanswerable.

We live in the space of our own minds, unconnected to all others.
posted by Kickstart70 at 10:26 PM on January 8, 2006


I believe in a cruel, omniscient god named Matt, who will vaporize you with a stroke of his finger for the slightest transgression of his commandments.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:34 PM on January 8, 2006


yes.
posted by freebird at 10:38 PM on January 8, 2006


After a few thousand years of trying, I think its time to admit we haven't learned anything about this world. All we've done is invent.

Our little fireside narratives are cute but all we have constructed is a delusion. One clue is that we are still discussing the same things we discussed thousands of years ago without having gotten anywhere.

You may argue science has advanced, but all that is is a bag of tricks - an only slightly more advanced Hints from Heloise.
posted by vacapinta at 10:39 PM on January 8, 2006


freebird's right.

The two (natural & supernatural) are not mutually exclusive. IMHO.
posted by JekPorkins at 10:47 PM on January 8, 2006


HORATIO
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

HAMLET
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
posted by weston at 10:47 PM on January 8, 2006


Similarly, is the universe a cold, lonely place with only rare occurences of life, or is it teeming with life? Why or why not?

The universe is teeming with life. At the same time, the universe is unimaginably, impossibly, infinitely vast. As an analogy, imagine a planet with billions of people. Now imagine that this planet is so big that it has the overall population density of Antarctica. It's zillions of miles to the next town. Oh there's people there, all right. Lots of 'em. But they're all really far away from each other.

Now imagine that I'm overstating said planet's population density by several kajillion orders of magnitude.

Welcome home.
posted by frogan at 10:51 PM on January 8, 2006


"The world" is by definition a natural thing. That's what "nature" is: the material, physical, knowable stuff around us. Anything beyond that is unknowable and only discernable by faith.

But if the question is "do you believe in the super-natural", well then you're just trying to start yet-another-religion-debate-on-metafilter. :)

(waiting for His Finger to zap this question for AskMe-unworthiness)
posted by todbot at 10:52 PM on January 8, 2006


Freebird nailed it. "Natural World" and "Supernatural World" are just mental constructs. It is what it is, man.
posted by Zendogg at 10:53 PM on January 8, 2006


Unknowable, but if you want a good treatment of the topic for the sophisticated layman, read Paul Davies's God & The New Physics.
posted by neuron at 11:05 PM on January 8, 2006


well then you're just trying to start yet-another-religion-debate-on-metafilter. :)

No, honestly, that's not my goal. I'm just semi-"tormented" by this notion lately that--if the world around us can be broken down mathematically, scientifically, logically, physically; and if it can realized solely through a material lense--that there is something fairly lonely and somewhat bleak about that. (Made bleaker by many of the strong, convincing arguments that skeptics and atheists routinely make...)
posted by iced_borsch at 11:07 PM on January 8, 2006


I'm just semi-"tormented" by this notion lately ... that there is something fairly lonely and somewhat bleak about that.

Penn Jillette, "There is No God"

Great essay. It's OK to be alone. ;-)
posted by frogan at 11:09 PM on January 8, 2006


Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do." So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun. It means I'm learning something.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557
posted by frogan at 11:11 PM on January 8, 2006


"Natural" encompasses everything we have ever sensed, including (we now know) "mystical" brain states. I therefore believe that the natural is all that there is, but the supernatural, being unfalsifiable, can't be ruled out. I remain an atheist, since I'm as sure about God as I am about werewolves or unicorns.

As for the Universe, I'm going to go with "teeming with life," since there are so many (MANY) freakin' star systems out there. That we haven't heard from anybody is a serious challenge to this belief, but there are some reasonable answers.
posted by callmejay at 11:18 PM on January 8, 2006


I'm just semi-"tormented" by this notion lately that--if the world around us can be broken down mathematically, scientifically, logically, physically; and if it can realized solely through a material lense--that there is something fairly lonely and somewhat bleak about that.

Hmmm. The poster *does* seem to have a real question: how to deal with the seemingly bleak picture of a rationalist universe.

You might want to read Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. That's a major theme. It's online here.

I personally think there's an entire universe full of things we haven't learned to detect let alone measure, all kinds of wonders out there that we don't know about. And there's all kinds of aspects to the human experience that we haven't learned to explain using rationalistic tools. Epistemologically, rationalism has its limits. So I wouldn't accept it as the my only lense through which to view the world.

But really, even a godless rationalist universe has room for all kinds of wonders and amazing things to it. Life is a miracle, evolved or created. Perhaps existance of anything at all is too.
posted by weston at 11:35 PM on January 8, 2006


how to deal with the seemingly bleak picture of a rationalist universe

A universe crawling with 'supernatural' entities is just as bleak. They would be, by definition, beyond our experience. What difference does it make if the garden is full of fairies if nobody has and can never see them?

The world is full of amazing people, places and experience - more than a thousand lifetimes' worth. Spend more time interacting with what's around you and forget about imaginary friends.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:55 PM on January 8, 2006


For the loss one feels in a 'naturalistic' world, one should read Nietzsche. It is a truly great thing to realize that there our no boundries put on you by this universe and that only you are responible for your failures and triumphs.

So be an Overman and create your own meaning!
posted by nosophoros at 12:56 AM on January 9, 2006


there is something fairly lonely and somewhat bleak about that

What's bleak about that? Does it make the night sky any less awe-inspiring to know that the stars are there as the result of a chemical reaction spanning billions of years and unfathomable distances? Does it make love less invigorating, sunsets less dazzling, chocolate less delicious if none of it happens under the supervision of a governing intelligence?
posted by jjg at 1:03 AM on January 9, 2006


It's all natural. Anything which can be proven yet which may have been considered supernatural, shifts into the realm of natural.
posted by tomble at 1:24 AM on January 9, 2006


Part of the impulse toward a belief, for instance, in the soul is the fact that in most people's intuitons, it's inconcievable that the physical world alone explains consciousness. For instance, most can envision a world where everyone acted the same - physically identical - but they had no internal experiences. In which case, obviously consciousness can't be material, since you can logically remove it without removing anything physical. This is an idea which by and large only religion seems to address.

Science and secular philosophy are finally starting to get a grip, though. Most notably, David Chalmers in his famous paper Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness makes the argument for a naturalist dualism, a stance taken by a growing number of thinkers.
posted by abcde at 1:48 AM on January 9, 2006


We live in a natural world.

Semantically, we live in the world, and the world is natural. The supernatural is, by definition, beyond the natural.

We can observe, measure, and relate to the natural world. We cannot observe, measure, or objectively relate to anything supernatural.

It is possible to imagine that the world we know is contained within, or can communicate with some other supernatural world, but you can't really do much more than imagine and speculate about it.

People who think they can talk to god, angels, deamons, etc. are insane to the extent that they attempt to convince other people in the natural world that they can engage in such communication. That doesn't mean that they can't communicate with such supernatural beings, just that such communication has no sane context in our well-understood natural world.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:51 AM on January 9, 2006


I went to a sermon about this yesterday, and it was bloody good. To paraphrase:

The only rational response to a universe where everything ends and everyone dies is simple loving kindness.

The universe is filled with miracles. Each ordinary moment should be filled with joy.
posted by wilberforce at 1:56 AM on January 9, 2006


The sad thing is, wilberforce, that is not the only "rational" response. It's a good "game theory" response (a really advanced version of the prisoner's dilemma, whereby you agree to participate in the ethical and moral constraints of generations past precisely because you would not be here if they didn't follow the same constraints), but it isn't by any means the only rational choice. One can rationalize psychopathic behavior for the entirety of one's life in a completely amoral universe, and if you get away with it- hooray for you, I guess. I think that more people have chosen the latter anyway, even if they won't confess to it; their actions speak louder that they are narcissistic and uncaring of anything but their imagined monkeysphere, and even to those select few they can be pretty fucking cruel.

We are all fucking psycho crazy-ass bags of neurochemicals, and at best we can connect through tiny pinholes in our delusional creations we call a consciousness. It sucks, but it's all we have, and adding to those delusions with further notions of God or chakras or universal consciousness really just clogs the pinholes.

And I kind of find it childish to say things like "each ordinary moment should be filled with joy". That sounds like you are effectively advocating burning yourself out like a firework through a heavy cocktail of heroin and the like. This, you see, would be most blissful, wherein every moment is filled with joy (until your body finally collapses and your heart stops). But I can't watch a film like "Hotel Rwanda" or even flip on FOX NEWS without thinking it's some hippy dippy trippy bag of shit to say life is an unending parade of "taste the happy" if only we let it be. Life is cold, brutish, and short, and while people have an unending capacity for cruelty and hurt, our mortal struggles are not all our doing. A microscopic parasite or virus is hardly concerned with our moral stature or level of enlightment as it tears apart our intestines.

I am a staunch athiest of the Penn Gillette persuasion, I guess, and I don't believe in the supernatural- only in mankind's ignorance of things as yet undiscovered. I would be more worried in some childlike notion of superbeings and supernatural anthropomorphic forces controlling our lives than the idea of a universe where we are among the only few specks of life. I do think we should make our time here valuable and loving, but mostly because I'd want to be around such people, and to become such a person myself. It's really just a lower-dosage, needleless form of heroin that I'm seeking.
posted by hincandenza at 3:17 AM on January 9, 2006


There is only the natural world. You don't have an option. "Supernatural" is "super make-believe".

Everyone was talking crazy until Francis Bacon came along. Then, most of us got together to produce reproducible experiments, that we could use to predict and describe the world.

If a kid has an imaginary friend, we laugh it off. If an adult sees an alien or an angel, then, we take it seriously... unless we're scientists.
posted by ewkpates at 4:36 AM on January 9, 2006


hincandenza: Well, certainly, you could look at a psychopathic/sociopathic solipsist and call them rational. Although that would be stretching the consensual meaning of the word a bit.

The whole 'ordinary moment' thing made me cringe when I heard it, because it's such a cliché, and it does sound childish. But when I think about it, and unwrap my distaste for hippies and new-age junk from around it, it's also true. Yes, people all over the place are broken and hurting in every conceivable way. But that joy is the only way to bear up under the weight, and do one's bit to help them.

I'm not talking about a neo-buddhist sit-under-a-tree-and-starve-to-death (medicated or not) kind of joy. That leaves me cold in about the same way as it seems to annoy you. And I'm not trying to say the universe loves you, or that you shouldn't get pissed off watching FOX News. It's just that the only other option is to just collapse in a heap and give up.

Love the name, by the way. I keep trying to get people I like to read Infinite Jest, but they won't.
posted by wilberforce at 5:08 AM on January 9, 2006


I'm not interested in all the poll questions you posed (and it's an abuse of Ask do so), nor do I plan to pummel you with supernatural persuasion, but I'll try to address your underlying question:

As a fence-sitter, now might be a good time to cure yourself of supernaturalism and transfer your sense of wonder to the real world.
posted by majick at 7:27 AM on January 9, 2006


It's all natural. Anything which can be proven yet which may have been considered supernatural, shifts into the realm of natural.

I agree with tomble's simple statemtent. Reality, that which exists, is natural. If a god or gods of any kind exist, they also are natural -- we simply have no evidence of such existence to date. It is human to wonder and theorize about elements of nature which we don't yet understand; but if they exist, they are necessarily part of nature. Therefore, if anything typically styled "supernatural" exists, it is not in fact supernatural -- it must have an explanation within our natural system.
posted by Miko at 7:48 AM on January 9, 2006


It is a shame we have to have this thread after 500 years of scientific progress. I mean holy crap.
posted by Hildago at 8:10 AM on January 9, 2006


If it's a part of the world, then it's natural by definition. So of course we live in a natural world. The question should be phrased "are there supernatural forces that affect the world"?
posted by delmoi at 9:09 AM on January 9, 2006


Also, yes. If it can be proven, that it's not supernatural.
posted by delmoi at 9:09 AM on January 9, 2006


The question should be phrased "are there supernatural forces that affect the world"?

But delmoi, if there are such forces, then they are necessarily natural. Anything that exists is necessarily natural.
posted by Miko at 9:25 AM on January 9, 2006


To clarify my above proposal somewhat: if a phenomenon which was observable and verifiable occurred, and it could not be explained with our current understanding of natural laws, natural laws would have to be revised in order to take in and explain this phenomena. Which is what the process of science is.

In the past, there were many observable phenomena - gravitation, for example -- which were not explainable through science at the time. They may have appeared 'supernatural'. Though the diligent work of generations of scientists, they can now be explained.
posted by Miko at 9:43 AM on January 9, 2006


An enjoyable thread; thanks! I wonder:

Are there aspects of reality that cannot be perceived by human rationality?

Why is the rational function of the modern human so likely these days to be insistant upon its own supremacy amongst all of the other possible functions of the human being? Is this subject to change?

Why is rationalist/objectivist/scientific/skeptical certitude apparently not itself subject to honest skepticism, or acknowledged to be a form of fundamentalism or limiting orthodoxy?

Are any rationalists/scientists writing/thinking about the seductive, narcisistic, self-indulgent, even possibly pathetic charms of rationalism?

How capable is even a fully active human nervous system, and not just its rational functions, of completely "knowing" and "understanding" the entire scope of the natural universe?

What do insects "think" of humans?

Hmmm...?
posted by dpcoffin at 10:18 AM on January 9, 2006


Why is rationalist/objectivist/scientific/skeptical certitude apparently not itself subject to honest skepticism

Well, first of all, it is, but the process of peer review and replication in science gives its findings a much greater degree of certainty than any other field of inquiry.

Also, because empirical observation and testing is the only means we have of knowing anything about the world. Everything else is just imagination at work. Ideas are wonderful, important, powerful. But if there is nothing about them that can be proved or disproved, they are untestable and thus cannot result in new knowledge.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on January 9, 2006


Also, because empirical observation and testing is the only means we have of knowing anything about the world. Everything else is just imagination at work. Ideas are wonderful, important, powerful. But if there is nothing about them that can be proved or disproved, they are untestable and thus cannot result in new knowledge.

“Knowing” and “knowledge” are thus terms that have no meaning out of the context of scientific testing? No other forms of cognition or experience have any value, or even exist, as “means of knowing”? A productive, practical way to set the rules for a game, no question, or at least so it seems to have proven in the short term. But why experience it as simply another form of “no other gods but my God”?

Why insist that only “provable,” “reproducible” results are real? Why insist that any experience that you have not so far proved capable of having cannot be real?

Sorry, I can’t distinguish such virulent, over-protested and limiting certainty from all the other forms of fear-driven fundamentalist entrenchment so prevalent these days. Why ARE rationalists so defensive, so exclusive?
posted by dpcoffin at 11:02 AM on January 9, 2006


dpcoffin, what other sources of information are you aware of besides those which our senses can perceive? What other information-delivery systems are you equipped with that the rest of us must lack?

Yes, it must seem limiting if you refuse to accept that the senses are our only way of knowing. But the premise of all rationality is that we must begin reasoning from the only things we can reasonably recognize and agree upon as 'real'. Since your inner perceptions of mysterious forces are not something I can see, know, recognize, or agree upon, they can't form the basis for a reasoned knowledge of the world. They are too subjective. They don't have an existence outside yourself.

I feel like I am reiterating some very, very basic concepts of Western philosophy here. It's the kind of conversation I think is best held by a stoned college sophomore, a philosopher, or a scientist. I am none of the above, but I am an adherent of science.

It is the only system of thought humans can use with any certainty and any sense of shared truth. It is not fundamentalism, becuase arguments are not reducible to you-believe-this, I-believe-that, and no one has to produce any evidence to claim rightness. It is the only system of thought in which differences of opinion can be resolved by the production evidence which will settle the question. It references an absolute reality which no religion or spiritual system can demonstrate.
posted by Miko at 11:15 AM on January 9, 2006


I think the first thing you have to do is figure out what the hell you mean by "supernatural". As others have said, anything which IS is natural. Nature is the totality of being. All that is sensed or experienced, all that happens, is by definition natural.

So where is the notion of supernatural from? I think you have two possible avenues - there's the common thought that it is somehow "beyond" the natural, external to nature and yet interacting with nature. One can read certain philosophers to think along these lines, but in my opinion it's very difficult to really get hold of what that would mean, since these beyond-nesses can't be material or temporal. The other way to look at it is rather that the 'supernatural' is the wholeness or unity of the natural - that the existence of existence itself is the divine event. This is where some material philosophers find a sort of conception of god, and I think it's a much more profound one than the ill-defined beyond-ness. But it's still not easy to really comprehend.

Anyway, if you're really interested in these questions, there are thousands of years of thoughts on it, which a tiny little thread on metafilter is just not going to make much of a dent in. Go check out the philosophy section of your local library/bookstore. Some easy to read stuff that you might enjoy would include Nietzsche's The Gay Science (anti-religious but exuberant), Augustine's Confessions (pretty religious, highly personal; the end sections on temporality etc are pretty interesting), maybe Plato's Phaedo or Symposium (some kind of extra-material world, though more abstract), perhaps the early part of Hobbes' Leviathan before it gets into the technically political (materialistic)... (I'm trying to think of stuff that would be highly accessible & examples that cover a range of perspectives).

Though if you like non-fiction to start with, then just jump in anywhere, or take a class on philosophy.
posted by mdn at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2006


Sidestepping the apparent question entirely for the subtextual one, I'd recommend Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which is in part an account of his time in a concentration camp and in part a bit of exposition on his thinking on existentialism. I've read the book nearly a decade ago and I still think of it sometimes; I found it both rich and deeply affecting.

As for the apparent question: I don't know. I think I'm not capable of ever knowing. I'm an agnostic. The possibility of a godless universe doesn't bother me nearly as much as finding something good for lunch that costs $14 or less.
posted by Tuwa at 11:50 AM on January 9, 2006


dpcoffin, what other sources of information are you aware of besides those which our senses can perceive? What other information-delivery systems are you equipped with that the rest of us must lack?

I’m not claiming any special powers. I’m simply not willing to let a rationalist in a lab coat insist that I cannot have them. Or that NO ONE in history can EVER have had them because they have never been demonstrated in a scientific setting, to the satisfaction of scientific fundamentalists who are determined that they are impossible to begin with.

Yes, it must seem limiting if you refuse to accept that the senses are our only way of knowing.

I only refuse to accept that the possible reach of our “senses” has already been fully understood and explored by modern science.

But the premise of all rationality is that we must begin reasoning from the only things we can reasonably recognize and agree upon as 'real'. Since your inner perceptions of mysterious forces are not something I can see, know, recognize, or agree upon, they can't form the basis for a reasoned knowledge of the world. They are too subjective. They don't have an existence outside yourself.

I don’t argue with any of the premises of the game of rationality; only with the certainty that nothing not proven to the rational can have an existence.

I feel like I am reiterating some very, very basic concepts of Western philosophy here.

No doubt! You’re completely satisfied with Western philosophy? Is it over? Has everything been decided?

It's the kind of conversation I think is best held by a stoned college sophomore, a philosopher, or a scientist. I am none of the above, but I am an adherent of science.
It is the only system of thought humans can use with any certainty and any sense of shared truth.


That seems to me a pretty colossally excluding and limiting POV. You have absolutely NO interest in, and can learn nothing from, the experience of ANY humans who lived before the age of science, or who dare to live outside it now?

It is not fundamentalism, becuase arguments are not reducible to you-believe-this, I-believe-that, and no one has to produce any evidence to claim rightness. It is the only system of thought in which differences of opinion can be resolved by the production evidence which will settle the question. It references an absolute reality which no religion or spiritual system can demonstrate.

Sorry, I still see many similarities between the arguments “It’s in the Bible” and “It’s been proven!” (or “it’s never been proven.”) I’m quite astonished at how similarly and how often both the high priesthoods of religion and science have defended as absolute ideas that have turned out to be limited, off the mark, and/or untrue. I certainly give credit to science for being a little bit faster to change position. But not to being any less arrogant.

I’m certainly more of a “believer” in Science than in Religion myself. But I’m not at all ready to claim that either branch of human inquiry is barking up the wrong tree. I simply cringe at the endless evidence that proponents of neither branch are apparently humbled by their own proven incapacity to “get it right, once and for all.” And more critical of scientists, who ought to be.
posted by dpcoffin at 12:15 PM on January 9, 2006


dpcoffin, I'm not even sure what you're arguing. mdn's excellent comment and reading recommendations should take care of most of your questions. Just one more thing --

I only refuse to accept that the possible reach of our “senses” has already been fully understood and explored by modern science.

Heavens, no -- there are new discoveries constantly being made, and new problems appearing daily. I would never say that science "fully understands" the world. I am only saying that there is no other way but through science to approach the understanding of the world.

Let's say you know of a phenomena that appears to be supernatural. Well and good. Now you'd like me to discuss it, accept it, or believe in it. There is no way to start even discussing and apprehending this phenomena if you can't show it to me, somehow. Until you can somehow present it to another person for recognition, it exists only in your own mind. That's fine -- it's just not a way that will advance understanding of the world, because it is solipsistic.

I've no problem with religion, emotion, legend, myth. I see them as valuable human means of imagining and interpreting the world. But they are not means of knowing or understanding the world. See the difference? Religion and science are in no way two sides of the same coin. They don't share the same aims. They can't be compared as ways of knowing. To suggest so is to trivialize both, and misunderstand the purposes of each.
posted by Miko at 12:58 PM on January 9, 2006


all we have constructed is a delusion. One clue is that we are still discussing the same things we discussed thousands of years ago without having gotten anywhere.

All that proves is that those who are still discussing haven't accepted the reports from those who discovered something.
posted by dpcoffin at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2006


Either God doesn't exist, or He is trying to trick us, doesn't want us to find Him, likes seeing us mess up His message, etc. Since God wouldn't try to trick us, etc, He can't exist.

While some might complain that's just a clever semantic silly, I seriously feel it rather conclusively eliminates the possibility of a Christian, Moslem, or Jewish God.

The existence of "magic" in the universe is harder to argue against, since it isn't tied to any motive or purpose. But since we've never had any "magic" hold up to peer review, and a huge amount of "mundane" holds up to peer review every second, that seems to rule out the idea that the world is a magical place. And that line of reasoning doesn't require science. If there was magic in the world I think we'd expect to see much more of it overtly.

As to the space alien question, we are just too young as a species to make a good argument about such things. With God and magic we should be able to see or experience them right in front of us. But the space alien question can comfortably remain unanswered until we get a detailed look at thousands of other planets.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:25 PM on January 9, 2006


Either God doesn't exist, or He is trying to trick us, doesn't want us to find Him, likes seeing us mess up His message, etc. Since God wouldn't try to trick us, etc, He can't exist.

1. Why do you assume that God wouldn't try to trick us, etc? If God doesn't exist, how do you know what the characteristics of God are?

2. Millions of people have found God, or believe that they have. It took us millions of years to find Quarks. They weren't hiding from us, trying to trick us, and I'm pretty sure they didn't care about any message. That didn't mean they didn't exist, though. And any scientist would have been a fool to propose that Quarks definitely did not exist on the grounds that they hadn't been discovered yet.

3. With as broad a definition of "science" as is used here, it can hardly be said that God can't be found "scientifically." Given that lots of people claim to have found God, and that they have found him in millions of different ways, the really tricky part is trying out each of the ways that people claim to have made the discovery, and recreating the particular conditions that made their alleged discovery possible.

You really can't discount the Judeo/Christian or Muslim dieties on the grounds that "if he exists, he'd show himself," since each of those religions believes (AFAIK) that he has shown himself on a number of occasions.
posted by JekPorkins at 1:35 PM on January 9, 2006


"only with the certainty that nothing not proven to the rational can have an existence"

Well, that sort of goes hand in hand with rational existence. If something exists then there is at least the possibility of observing and explaining it via scientific methods. By all means feel free to live in a world where there are things which can never be explained by science. But to live in such a world is to give up on knowing what is real. And once you give up on rational measurements, you make the debate less worthwhile.

"Anything can exist" or "we can never explain certain things" is just breaking the rules if we want to discuss what is real. Because at that point you've stopped caring about what is real.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:48 PM on January 9, 2006


If something exists then there is at least the possibility of observing and explaining it via scientific methods.

This is an excellent statement. There are zillions of very real things and phenomena that we have never been able to perceive or explain, but each of them can, in theory, at least, be observed and explained via the scientific method, if only we had the time and the means to do so.

There are also lots of realities that are very real, but that we just accept as real without applying any scientific scrutiny to at all. For example, when you have a dentist appointment, you could probably go through the scientific method to prove that you do, in fact, have a dentist appointment. But unless you're a wierdo, you don't. Instead, you rely on your own perception and memory and you just assume it to be real, without any appeal to science at all. Fancy that.

For many people, the 'supernatural' or the 'divine' is like the dentist appointment: It's always worked in their life as advertised, they perceive it and remember it in its own way, and they just accept its existence, confident that, if mankind had the means to do so, it could survive scientific scrutiny just fine.
posted by JekPorkins at 1:57 PM on January 9, 2006


"Why do you assume that God wouldn't try to trick us, etc?"

Because that's not part of the theology. Certainly, it might be argued, a supernatural being could have created the universe, and wishes to hide from us. But that's not the God worshipped by the major religions.

In other words, a "trickster god" is not capital G God. Such a being would fall into the magical/spiritual realm. But that is (to my mind at least) still negated by my second argument - No amount of looking, short of blind faith, will lead to us finding such a trickster god.

I read the original question as - "Taking blind faith out of the equation, do we live in a natural world or a supernatural world?" And unless I missed a memo or something God was supposed to be our lord and savior. As such I doubt He'd restrict Himself to images burned onto toast, which IIRC is His most overt manifestation in recent decades. Seriously.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:10 PM on January 9, 2006


I am only saying that there is no other way but through science to approach the understanding of the world.

I’m arguing that this is nonsense, for one thing. (I’m sure you don’t even really mean it...) Have you “proven” everything that you understand about the world?

Let's say you know of a phenomena that appears to be supernatural. Well and good. Now you'd like me to discuss it, accept it, or believe in it. There is no way to start even discussing and apprehending this phenomena if you can't show it to me, somehow. Until you can somehow present it to another person for recognition, it exists only in your own mind. That's fine -- it's just not a way that will advance understanding of the world, because it is solipsistic.

Let’s say instead that I have an experience that is natural to me. For instance, let’s say that I have perfect pitch and you do not. I detect distinctions in pitch that are meaningless to you. Whether I care to or not, I can’t prove to you that these levels of distinction even exist, until someone invents a device like an oscilloscope to show you what you can’t hear. Lacking that, you can either consider me delusional and maybe go on to construct a system of thought that “proves” this, or perhaps because some other folks report the same experience as me, you believe me and hold my capacity in some ill-defined awe, but in neither case do you have any real understanding of my experience. Do my perceptions of pitch distinction exist only in my or my fellow experiencers own minds? Are you certain that science has already detected everything that every human nervous system can perceive? Simply because science has detected many things that are beyond human perception doesn’t prove that it has.

I’m arguing that science can also be, and has often proven itself to be, a way to be short-sighted and self-limiting about experiencing the world, in every way similar to the way a firmly-held religious belief can be.

I’m arguing that scientists are myth-makers as well as objective perceivers, and can absolutely be fundamentalists concerning their myths-of-the-moment.
posted by dpcoffin at 2:15 PM on January 9, 2006


y6y6y6: If faith is one of the conditions that must be met in order to find God, but one can, in fact, find God firsthand after excercising faith, then doesn't "taking . . . faith out of the equation" predictably ruin any "scientific" attempt at finding God?

(by the way, I'm not really sure what you mean by "blind faith," or what the distinction is between that and what I think of as "faith." It's entirely possible that we're talking past each other when we say "faith.")

At any rate, I think the original question needs an explanation of what it means by "natural" and "supernatural." If God exists, he must be, by definition, natural, I think.

And I don't think he's restricted himself to images burned on toast, but that's just my opinion.
posted by JekPorkins at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2006


"I’m arguing that science can also be, and has often proven itself to be, a way to be short-sighted and self-limiting about experiencing the world, in every way similar to the way a firmly-held religious belief can be."

I think you made that up. I don't think you'll be able to come up with many examples of this sort of thing since the rigorous and widespread adoption of the scientific method. I would argue the opposite - Since Newton, Bacon, and Descartes our understanding of how the world works and what our universe contains has exploded.

It seems to me that examples of how science has proven to be a limiting factor on our knowledge about, and experience of, the universe would require some radical cherry picking. If you are going to argue that it's "limiting" that we no longer blame the weather on dragons, or that woman now seldom report being raped by the Devil.......... Well, in that case I think you're being silly.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:50 PM on January 9, 2006


"If faith is one of the conditions that must be met in order to find God, but one can, in fact, find God firsthand after excercising faith, then doesn't "taking . . . faith out of the equation" predictably ruin any "scientific" attempt at finding God?"

Well, we've veered too far off the thread topic at this point.

There is no need for a scientific attempt to find God. I'm sure He's more than capable of proving He exists. I've read about pillars of salt, walking on water, virgin births, piles fish being called forth from nothing, resurrecting dead people. Something like that. That's all it would take.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:06 PM on January 9, 2006


I've read about pillars of salt, walking on water, virgin births, piles fish being called forth from nothing, resurrecting dead people. Something like that. That's all it would take.

Though apparently it would take more than that, since you've read about those events and still don't believe (though I don't recall the fish being called forth from nothing one). Do you refuse to believe in any scientific discoveries that you've read about until you experience them firsthand?

I'm not saying that any of the things you've read about conclusively prove anything. But it seems really silly to me for someone to be bent on accepting only scientific proof for the existence or nonexistence of something, and then in the case of divinity taking the extraordinarily non-scientific position that God's failure to reveal himself to that person is somehow evidence of God's nonexistence.

J.D. Salinger has probably not revealed himself to you, though it's entirely in his power to do so. Do you deny his existence, too?

But I don't think we're off the tread topic at all. The question is whether the world is natural or supernatural, and I would posit that the world is natural, and that the term 'supernatural' is basically meaningless. The term 'natural' does not, however, exclude the existence of things that have not yet been recognized by mainstream scientific scholarship.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:14 PM on January 9, 2006


Let’s say instead that I have an experience that is natural to me.

that is fine, but there are very few people in the world attempting to prove a natural god. That's the source of the question to begin with, isn't it? If god is just another thing in the universe, then we should be able to detect him scientifically, and there's no need for the suggestion of the supernatural, but only for better science (e.g., a more distinct hypothesis of what we'd be trying to detect). If we're arguing the possibility of the supernatural to begin with, then we have to define what exactly is meant by that. As I said above, I think it is sometimes not well thought out, and vague things are said of it that give people a sense of meaning and connection without really explaining how it works. If it is beyond time and space, how can it exist? It cannot do anything (that's temporal); it cannot be anywhere (that's spatial) - the best it can do is be everywhere and everywhen, but then it must be all of nature, in which case obviously god exists, because you are sitting on it and typing on it and picking its nose, because god is you and your computer and your chair and the bagel you had for breakfast and every other part of the universe. This is an ancient tradition of what god is - check out hinduism, for instance - but it is not the common western interpretation. But if you and your computer/etc are not god, then god is not everywhere and everywhen - in a sense, there is a big hole in god, which is creation...

anyway. Like I said, thousands of years of interesting material to consider, if you really want to think about it.
posted by mdn at 3:22 PM on January 9, 2006


I think you made that up. I don't think you'll be able to come up with many examples of this sort of thing since the rigorous and widespread adoption of the scientific method.

Um, have you not observed that science is constantly telling us “We now know...”, and ridiculing ideas to the contrary, until proven wrong? It happens every day.

Did you ever try telling a scientist in the 1960s that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, or a doctor in the 1800s to wash his hands before delivering a child, or that open-heart surgery was possible in the 1940s? Until some crack-pot proved otherwise, you’d have been told that we “know” that’s ridiculous. The history of science is packed with ridicule of new ideas. Science believes its own myths, and bows to its own preists, often to the serious limitation of seeing what’s right in front of its nose, if only it was admitted to be possible. I think you can recall other examples for yourself without looking for dragons.

Science also loves to congratulate itself... and often deservedly so. But to imagine that there’s no orthodoxy, no cultural resistance, no overlooking of inconvenient data, no discouragement of unpopular/impolitic research, in the scientific community is worse than silly.
posted by dpcoffin at 3:22 PM on January 9, 2006


"J.D. Salinger has probably not revealed himself to you, though it's entirely in his power to do so. Do you deny his existence, too?"

Many people I trust enough to believe out of hand have met J.D. Salinger. Similarly, I don't expect the Lord to come over right now and bring along my dead grandfather. But I think asking Him to establish Himself conclusively in my trust network isn't asking for too much. So, for example, Pat Robertson is not in my network of trust, and neither is the Council of Trent.

And saying that God has already done these things, so he couldn't prove his existence by doing them again is wildly disingenuous.

Many scientific journals are in my web of trust. God knows how to contact them.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:33 PM on January 9, 2006


Many people I trust enough to believe out of hand have met J.D. Salinger

But surely you believe in the existence of persons who your friends have not met. Right? We could list people until we find someone who your friends haven't met, I guess. Syd Barrett? Brian Jones?

But I think asking Him to establish Himself conclusively in my trust network isn't asking for too much.

Something tells me you haven't asked Him all that sincerely. Have you asked him? When you asked, did you do so with faith? (according to many of those who believe in God, the only persuasive way to ask is with faith)

Pat Robertson is not in my network of trust

But you aren't waiting for Robertson to contact a scientific journal before you decide to believe he exists, right?

And saying that God has already done these things, so he couldn't prove his existence by doing them again is wildly disingenuous.

Who's saying that? I agree, that would be disingenuous.

God knows how to contact them.

If he exists, yes, he does. But what makes you think he would want to, if he does exist? He certainly doesn't need the ego boost that comes from being published in a peer reviewed journal, and he's not exactly in need of more publicity.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:45 PM on January 9, 2006


Many scientific journals are in my web of trust. God knows how to contact them.

One of the Greatest. Rebuttals. Ever.

Bravo, sir.
posted by frogan at 4:58 PM on January 9, 2006


Since this thread is still here...

'Supernatural' simply means beyond the ordinary. Rewind back to before the "modern era". 'Natural' referred to the phenomena of mundane daily life and the ruleset that applies to it i.e. things drop to the ground when let go...etc. Now supernatural simply meant behaviour that couldn't be reduced as the output of that ruleset. Now we have statements in this thread that the supernatural doesn't exist. True, if you define nature as All there is. Which is just a trite semantic point and doesn't get at the underlying connotation of the word.
posted by Gyan at 7:48 PM on January 9, 2006


Supernatural' simply means beyond the ordinary. Rewind back to before the "modern era". 'Natural' referred to the phenomena of mundane daily life... supernatural simply meant behaviour that couldn't be reduced as the output of that ruleset.

Gyan, that's simply incorrect - go back 2500 years, and you'll find Aristotle defined Nature as 'all that is', while Plato spoke about the forms being 'eternal and changeless', somehow beyond the mundane world of activity, and in a realm of pure ideas. As above, it is hard to pin down precisely what this means - whether it's meant to connote another realm or a conceptual inherence or what - but the notion of some sort of Being beyond the being we experience directly is ancient and well documented, and not derived just from not being able to explain gravity. In many ways the ancients were just as satisfied with their physics as we are with ours...
posted by mdn at 8:15 PM on January 9, 2006


I defined 'natural' in contrast to 'supernatural'. Your explanation works out to the same thing: beyond the ordinary. Beyond the ordinary in what way? Those are details.
posted by Gyan at 8:25 PM on January 9, 2006


Science also loves to congratulate itself... and often deservedly so. But to imagine that there’s no orthodoxy, no cultural resistance, no overlooking of inconvenient data, no discouragement of unpopular/impolitic research, in the scientific community is worse than silly.

Oh definitely. But were that universally true, science would get nowhere and our scientific progress would stagnate. We'd have more ulcers, infections, 1200 baud modems, no teflon coatings, etc.

While the scientific community in general may exhibit enormous reluctance to change of its basic tenets, scientists in particular (younger ones especially) love to come up with new ideas and show how their work is revolutionary. And sometimes the scientific community agrees. Even Einstein's relativity results were doubted for many years.

And if Einstein would've been wrong, you wouldn't be able to watch your TiVo.
posted by todbot at 12:28 AM on January 10, 2006


Science also loves to...science is constantly telling us ....

dpcoffin, you're really anthropomorphizing science. Science is not a person, it's not an institution, it's not a them, and it isn't "telling" us anything. Science is a system of thought and practice, developed to determine to as close a degree as possible the validity of any hypothesis. Do you disagree with an established idea? Fine, then test it, using the scientific method. Show that it is wrong. Gather and present evidence. If you are successful in creating a new understanding, those who practice science will then re-evaluate their established understandings in light of the new truth you have discovered.

This is the difference between science and religion. Scientific hypotheses must contain their own disproof: that is, they must make a statement that could, in theory, be disproven. Religious statements (statements about the potential existence of the supernatural) do not require this standard. Since nothing about religious statements can be proved or disproved, they never require their own revision. They don't provide a system by which the current degree of understanding can be refined by any participant.

For these reasons, responsible scientists tend to phrase discussions about the existence of the divine in this way "We have no evidence for or against the existence of God." Scientists rarely categorically deny the existence of a god or gods, nor do they promote it, within the context of science. There is simply no evidence; nothing to test. Science can't speak to this question. When scientists do have a religious conviction of one kind or another, they'll often admit that it is the result of a hunch, a feeling, a personal belief -- whether it's atheism or deism or whatever. They readily admit there is no evidence on which the belief is based. The belief falls into the realm of imagination and emotion.

I think science would be able to accept and prove the existence of the divine, if there were any evidence to be examined that could not otherwise be explained. But science has dedicated itself to finding explanations for evidence which obey natural law. When natural law cannot explain something, the law itself must be further defined. That elaborative process works. But in the absence of evidence, it can't be used at all. Science is not closed to the possibility of the divine; it simply has never been confronted with something explainable only by divine action.
posted by Miko at 9:11 AM on January 11, 2006


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