Saturday, March 12, 2016

Science and the Supernatural

Today's discussion involves the interaction between science and religion. Much credit goes to professor emeritus Steven Dutch for his article "Why Science Can't Accept Miracles (Even if They Really Exist)"
Ray: The Bible speaks of "science, falsely so called." (I Timothy 6:20) Darwinian evolution (as Dawkins so often calls it) fits into that same category. Bogus science.
Me: Only the King James Version and the New King James Version translate the word in question as "science." Every modern, scholarly translation translates it as "knowledge."
Elia: Science simply means "knowledge"
Me: Scientia is Latin for "knowledge." And words are determined by usage. This is analogous to how the word "apology" doesn't mean "a defense" in contemporary parlance, even though the Greek word ἀπολογία from which it is derived means just that.
Lisa: And yet your understanding of science allows for the supernatural.
Me: I think it would be better to say that my understanding of science doesn't rule out the existence of the supernatural nor the existence of supernatural phenomena, even if it doesn't allow for supernatural explanations.
Let's suppose, as a thought experiment, that the entire length of the Mississippi River transforms into solid gold. Because of the magnitude of this event and the disastrous ecological effect such an event would wrought, this supernatural phenomenon becomes as well-documented as the collapse of the World Trade Centers and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What knowledge do scientists gain by acknowledging such a phenomenon? Surprisingly little. All they learn is that certain events are not subject to the error-correcting methods of science, and resume their work as if nothing happened. It's not that science makes a statement on the existence of supernatural phenomena, it's just that because supernatural phenomena are not subject to the error-correcting methods of science, they are effectively useless as a source of scientific knowledge. But that doesn't mean that supernatural phenomena can't provide meta-scientific or metaphysical information (which lies in the domain of philosophers and theologians) 
Lisa: Then you don't know what science is. Science never invokes the supernatural. Or magic. By definition.
Me: That's what I said. But just because science doesn't invoke the supernatural doesn't mean that it's committed to saying that the supernatural doesn't exist. 
See Stephen Jay Gould's essay on non-overlapping magesteria. Of course even if the magisteria do not overlap in theory they sometimes do in practice, resulting in controversies between science and religion.
Shepherd: Can you name a supernatural phenomena that was not listed in the Bible?
Me: I believe that the UFO encounters commonly reported are supernatural phenomena misdiagnosed as "alien abductions."
Shepherd: What leads you to believe that?
Me: They are exactly the same as demonic encounters of the Middle Ages only with different actors. And like demonic encounters, some of them are too well-documented and consistent to chalk it up to mass hysteria. By the way, it's "a supernatural phenomenon." "Phenomenon" comes from the Greek word φαινόμενον which is a neuter noun and therefore takes "-on" for the singular and "-a" for the plural. 
Peter: Have you considered the possibility, that deluded people in the middle ages would imagine their apparitions to be demons, and deluded people in the 20th century imagine their apparitions as aliens? You say some of these are well documented. An example?
Me: Yes, I considered that when I mentioned in my comment that "some of them are too well-documented to chalk it up to mass hysteria." But this is getting seriously off-topic. There's a Cracked article called "5 UFO Sightings That Even Non-Crazy People Find Creepy." I believe that some of those are very good candidates for "well-documented." I'm not linking it here due to the usage of profanity.
Shepherd: So alien abductions are just examples demon possession and demon possession is supernatural? Could demon possession be explained by natural means or do we know its supernatural. How would we distinguish?
Me: You are seriously going off topic, which normally isn't a bad thing but runs the risk of confusing Peter and Lisa by bringing something completely unrelated to the discussion of the role science plays in philosophy and metaphysics. For the record, I could be wrong or just plain irrational regarding "UFO encounters." It also has no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of the supernatural phenomena contained in the Bible if I happened to believe that no such phenomenon existed outside of it.
The term "supernatural" comes from Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy which classified phenomena as either acting "according to their nature" or "not according to their nature." Strictly speaking, only God can initiate "supernatural" events in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, and demonic possession and encounters would be considered "praeternatural." I am using "supernatural" in the sense used by coffee-shop intellectuals of "not definable in terms of interactions between fundamental particles and the four fundamental forces."
Shepherd: I think we are fairly on topic and that Lisa and Peter can keep up well.
Me: No we are not. The existence of supernatural phenomena outside of the Bible has nothing at all to do with the role science plays in metaphysics and philosophy.
Shepherd: Carl Sagan wrote a book called "the Demon Haunted World" which I think began to address that border and the role of science in addressing both demon possession and alien abductions.
It seems to me that your affinity to accept demons possession (and reject alien abduction) as an explanation for certain types of experiences people report has more to do with your wish to accept the Bible as True than it does with your unbiased, critical approach to evidence. I could be wrong of course. [Smiley emoticon]
Me: I cannot believe that you are simply ignoring my previous post and going off on your hobby horse.
Yes, it could definitely be that my evaluation of the evidence is biased by my prior beliefs. But that still has nothing at all to do with the facts that 
  1. Metascience and metaphysics are legitimate areas of intellectual inquiry.
  2. Science is limited by its insistence of randomized experiments to study mostly what Aristotle would call "material" and "efficient" causes of phenomena.
  3. The limitation of science caused by its error-correcting methods does not entail that material and efficient causes are therefore the only types of causality that exist in nature, nor does it entail that all natural phenomena are reducible to material and efficient causation.
Shepherd: Why so touchy? If you want me to address something specific just ask! I am not sure which post I am ignoring. I am also not sure what my hobby horse is. I am pushing to try to make the conversation specific, because I find that it can be very easy to get lost in the abstractions of metaphysics if they aren't tied to specific examples. That's part of why I asked you to give one, and I happen to think that one you gave was deeply useful and instructive in guiding our conversation. 
Also I come in peace good sir. You are a very smart dude, who happens to have a different background and different lenses for viewing the world than I do, but I enjoy that. Please take all of what I say in the good spirit of friendly investigation and if I offend, I apologize - it is not my intent. 
Me: Okay, I accept. I likewise apologize for being too defensive.
For the record, I do not believe that Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria is entirely correct, but nonetheless much like how the useful fiction that the Earth is a sphere (when in reality it is an oblate spheroid) is important to keep children from being distracted by irrelevant details, Gould's concept helps explain the divide between science and metaphysics without being too distracted by irrelevant details.

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