What is "the natural world"

If it's all of mass-energy then doesn't it include gods too?

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What is "the natural world"

#1  Postby andrewk » May 23, 2011 1:19 am

What does a theist mean when they refer to the ‘natural world’? This often occurs in claims like “the explanation for the natural world must lie outside the natural world”, or “Yahweh/Allah/Osiris/Elvis is a supernatural being”.

Sadly, politeness and tact prevent me from finding many opportunities to quiz religious people about this but, on the rare occasions I have managed to ask, the answer is usually some form of:
the natural world is all matter and energy, including all the matter and energy in other universes, if there is a multiverse”.

That makes me wonder what would happen if we discovered a new field that was not matter or energy. Indeed the “vacuum potential” of empty space might be considered to be such a field. To my great shame, I am not very well-versed in quantum mechanics but, from a very shallow reading (a few paras of wikipedia), it appears that vacuum potential is regarded as a form of potential energy. Hence it does not lie outside the realm of mass-energy.

But won’t the same apply to anything that can have an impact on mass and energy? If we were to discover a scalar field that, when it met certain criteria at a certain point in spacetime, generated a burst of energy or a particle, then isn’t that just another form of potential energy (ie it is a “potential” to create “energy”). In fact, anything of which we can conceive that has any potential to affect the world of mass-energy that we can observe, could be described as a form of potential energy could it not?

Theists who want to rule out all scientifically observable phenomena as potential explanations for existence appear to say:
1. The natural world cannot explain its own existence
2. The natural world consists of all matter and energy, including vacuum potential and other forms of potential energy
3. Anything scientifically observable, or even able to be hypothesised by scientists as affecting the natural world (eg the brane-world ‘bulk’ or the 11-dimensional string-theory manifold), falls within 2 and hence is part of the natural world

If this is indeed what theists believe, then how does it keep gods out of the natural world? As gods can create mass-energy, they are a form of potential energy, and so would be part of the natural world under this definition.

This leads me to the conclusion that the statements
(A) the natural world is all matter and energy, including potential energy; and
(B) gods are not part of the natural world
are incompatible.

I’d be very interested to hear what others think about this.

Have I misunderstood what theists mean by the “natural world”?
Am I wrong in concluding that anything that can affect mass-energy is a form of potential energy?
Is it possible to construct a coherent definition of “natural world” that doesn’t include any gods that exist? If so, how? :think:
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#2  Postby Destroyer » May 23, 2011 2:58 am

andrewk wrote:What does a theist mean when they refer to the ‘natural world’? This often occurs in claims like “the explanation for the natural world must lie outside the natural world”, or “Yahweh/Allah/Osiris/Elvis is a supernatural being”.


There are no gods that exists who are supernatural. That will eventually become established fact!... No gods would be accountable if they could act upon their own whims. Who could trust such gods? ..... Constancy rules!

Theistic belief in the supernatural simply cannot be justified. But believing that an Intelligent Being has programmed a purpose to existence is a totally different matter. That, however, demands for a natural explanation.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#3  Postby chairman bill » May 23, 2011 9:12 am

Asking what theists mean is the problem. They don't know what they are talking about. Even if various gods did exist, their nature is unknown to us, so when theists make claims to know anything about their nature, they are lying. Oh, there's a surprise.

Pinning a theist down to a fixed definition of their deity(s) is like nailing jelly ('jello' for our USAian friends) to a plank of wood.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#4  Postby Hugin » May 23, 2011 11:59 am

I think the distinction between natural and supernatural is rather artificial, and doesn't have any meaningful purpose. If ghosts existed, they would simply be part if the world. They are considered "supernatural" (or "paranormal") simply because no confirmed observation of them has been done.

It's similar to when people shout "Scientism!". It usually means that science is making inroads into areas they'd prefer science left alone.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#5  Postby Teuton » May 23, 2011 12:54 pm

andrewk wrote:
Sadly, politeness and tact prevent me from finding many opportunities to quiz religious people about this but, on the rare occasions I have managed to ask, the answer is usually some form of:
the natural world is all matter and energy, including all the matter and energy in other universes, if there is a multiverse”.


Yes, the natural world is the matter-energy-space-time world, or, if there is more than one such world, the natural worlds are the matter-energy-space-time worlds.

(According to this definition and according to theism, we are not part of the natural world, because we are God-made immaterial souls.)

andrewk wrote:If this is indeed what theists believe, then how does it keep gods out of the natural world? As gods can create mass-energy, they are a form of potential energy, and so would be part of the natural world under this definition.


Divine or any other supernatural causes are not part of the natural world. God is said to have magical spiritual powers, but as an immaterial spirit he doesn't possess any energy in the physical sense, which is the relevant sense in the definition of the natural world.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#6  Postby Clive Durdle » May 23, 2011 2:43 pm

The supernatural was invented in the middle ages in an attempt to put gods, demons angels and dog people somewhere.

http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/i ... cale=en_GB

How did people of the medieval period explain physical phenomena, such as eclipses or the distribution of land and water on the globe? What creatures did they think they might encounter: angels, devils, witches, dogheaded people? This fascinating book explores the ways in which medieval people categorized the world, concentrating on the division between the natural and the supernatural and showing how the idea of the supernatural came to be invented in the Middle Ages.

Robert Bartlett examines how theologians and others sought to draw lines between the natural, the miraculous, the marvelous and the monstrous, and the many conceptual problems they encountered as they did so. The final chapter explores the extraordinary thought-world of Roger Bacon as a case study exemplifying these issues. By recovering the mentalities of medieval writers and thinkers the book raises the critical question of how we deal with beliefs we no longer share.


The supernatural needs to go the way of aether - as a wrong hypothesis.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#7  Postby Chrisw » May 23, 2011 4:03 pm

People try to dress it up but I think that mostly (apart from idealists and a few other oddballs) when people say 'natural' they mean 'physical' and naturalism is just another way of saying physicalism.

Opponents of naturalism are invariably dualists. Religious people think that the physical cannot account for mind (they believe in absolute free will and that their self can plausibly survive after their bodily death). The same reasoning allows for dis-embodied minds (spirits, ghosts, gods) - if mind is distinct from matter then why wouldn't it be able to exist apart from it?

Miracles are similarly plausible for a dualist. God's mind directly causing effects in the physical world is not inherently more mysterious than my own mind causing my physical body to move.

So gods/immaterial minds are clearly not part of the physical (natural) world and this seems to ne to be the easiest way to understand the claims of the religious. They are simply dualists who believe there are divine as well as human minds.

We believe their non-naturalism is wrong for empirical reasons, the same empirical reasons that lead us to disbelieve in Cartesian dualism. Physical explanations seem sufficient to explain all human actions and all other natural phenomena. We don't see the kind of anomalies we would expect to see if there were either immaterial minds causing human actions or immaterial Gods interfering in nature.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#8  Postby Teuton » May 23, 2011 4:20 pm

Chrisw wrote:People try to dress it up but I think that mostly (apart from idealists and a few other oddballs) when people say 'natural' they mean 'physical' and naturalism is just another way of saying physicalism.
Opponents of naturalism are invariably dualists. Religious people think that the physical cannot account for mind (they believe in absolute free will and that their self can plausibly survive after their bodily death). The same reasoning allows for dis-embodied minds (spirits, ghosts, gods) - if mind is distinct from matter then why wouldn't it be able to exist apart from it?


Substance dualism is to be regarded as supernaturalistic, but many philosophers don't use "naturalism" and "physicalism" synonymously, because there is such a thing as a naturalistic attribute dualism (as defended by e.g. David Chalmers), according to which mental properties are properties of physical substances but nonphysical, physically irreducible sui generis properties of those. And there are other isms which can be called naturalistic but hardly materialistic such as neutral monism, according to which the fundamental natural properties are neither physical nor mental.

"In general, we use 'anti-materialism' to refer to the disjunction of a certain cluster of views incompatible with materialism: namely, dualism (property dualism or substance dualism); robust neutral monism (neither physical properties nor mental properties have metaphysical priority over the other); anti-reductionist versions of hylomorphism; anti-reductionist accounts of normativity; 'liberal naturalism' (as opposed to reductive naturalism); idealism (e.g., phenomenalism); epistemic stalemate (the materialism/anti-materialism debate ultimately ends in a draw); enigma (the Mind-Body Problem has no solution); various anti-realisms (including those that deny the legitimacy, or even the intelligibility, of the Mind-Body Problem)."

(Koons, Robert C., and George Bealer, eds. Introduction to The Waning of Materialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. xvii, n. xvi)
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#9  Postby Teuton » May 23, 2011 4:30 pm

Clive Durdle wrote:The supernatural was invented in the middle ages in an attempt to put gods, demons angels and dog people somewhere.
http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/i ... cale=en_GB


Yes, that's a very interesting book.

* Bartlett, Robert. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#10  Postby Teuton » May 23, 2011 4:37 pm

Clive Durdle wrote:
The supernatural needs to go the way of aether - as a wrong hypothesis.


But if the (mechanical) aether existed, there would be nothing supernatural about it, would there?

For example, what about Qi, the scientifically undetectable life force in whose existence most Asians believe? Should we naturalists say that it's a nonexistent natural force or that it's a nonexistent supernatural force?
(To say that anything that exists or occurs inside spacetime is natural is too weak to be adequate as a definition of "natural".)
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#11  Postby andrewk » Nov 19, 2011 6:41 am

I've been thinking a little more about this topic, hence the following:

Is it possible for there to be anything that we validly call supernatural?

Consider a thought experiment about ghosts. Say that, whenever an organism dies it creates a field of some type, whose strength depends on the intensity of the emotions at the time of death. The field dissipates exponentially over time and distance. When observed it can cause sound waves and electromagnetic waves that approximate the look and sound of the dead organism. We call these ‘apparitions’.

The sound and EM waves violate the principle of conservation of energy as we currently understand it. But they can be incorporated into a new principle that enables the amount of energy in the universe to be described by a new, clear mathematical formulae.

If we made experimental observations, developed a theory that included this formula and made predictions using the theory that were subsequently confirmed by experiment, so that now this phenomenon fitted into our understanding of the laws under which the universe operates, would we still describe the apparitions as supernatural?

My answer would be No. Once we understand a little of how and when they happen, they are no more supernatural than lightning and other electrical effects were once we came to understand electricity.

This leads me to propose that when we refer to ‘supernatural’ phenomena, we just mean phenomena for which we currently have no explanation - let’s call that Gap-supernatural. This definition is fundamentally different from the usual definition in current use, which is that ‘supernatural’ refers to anything that is not comprised of, or explicable in terms of, matter and energy - let’s call that concept ME-supernatural.

It so happens that, given our present state of knowledge, Gap-supernatural is the same as ME-supernatural. But that didn’t used to be the case. Before energy was discovered, Gap-supernatural included anything that was not composed solely of matter, such as lightning. So Gap-supernatural is a constantly diminishing set, as our knowledge grows.

I suggest that, when people say that ‘supernatural’ means anything not composed of matter and energy - or the equivalent statement that the natural world comprises only those things made solely of matter and/or energy - they are only saying that because matter and energy comprise all the things about the universe that we currently understand. What they really mean is
Gap-supernatural.

If next year we were to discover some field that is not inexplicable in terms of matter and energy, but causes changes to matter and energy according to laws describable by mathematical equations, I am confident that it would be rapidly assimilated into what we call the natural world. Say we call the field zumquatch. Then within a few years philosophers and theologians will be saying that the natural world consists of those things that can be explained solely in terms of matter and/or energy and/or zumquatch.

If we take this approach then anything that is true and capable of being known but is not yet known by humans, is currently supernatural, but will not necessarily remain so. It is only supernatural until we learn how it works. We could then define a new term - Irreducibly Supernatural - to mean something that is incapable of ever being known or described.

Now, as many theologians take the view that God is supernatural, and presumably will always be so, it seems that they must believe he is Irreducibly Supernatural, otherwise he is capable of being described by mathematical laws and accordingly just part of the universe, part of nature. But can anything be Irreducibly Supernatural? How could this be?

Perhaps if an object is so complex that it cannot be described by any finite set of laws, we could say that it is Irreducibly Supernatural. God could be such an object. However, there are some problems with this:

1. If god is omnipotent he should be capable of making himself fully known and understood to a human. But if that is the case then the god is not Irreducibly Supernatural. This suggests that god can only be Irreducibly Supernatural if he is not omnipotent.

2. If the universe is infinite, as is entirely possible under some solutions of the Friedman Lemaitre Robertson Walker cosmological equations, then it may itself be Irreducibly Supernatural. Whether it is so depends on whether the patterns in the universe repeat themselves in a regular manner over time and/or space. If they do, then it may be possible to formulate a finite description of the
infinite universe, just as we can give a finite description of the infinite decimal expansion of one seventh in base ten. If not, then the universe is Irreducibly Supernatural, which is awkward for the theologians because they can’t define a coherent category of supernatural objects that contains only god.

3. I also think I recall that some apologists like to think of God as a very simple being, as that is more pure, and also avoids the problem of how such a complex object came to be. This simplicity would conflict with His being Irreducibly Supernatural. But I may be misremembering my apologists on this one.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#12  Postby Goldenmane » Nov 19, 2011 8:26 am

Teuton wrote:
Clive Durdle wrote:
The supernatural needs to go the way of aether - as a wrong hypothesis.


But if the (mechanical) aether existed, there would be nothing supernatural about it, would there?

For example, what about Qi, the scientifically undetectable life force in whose existence most Asians believe? Should we naturalists say that it's a nonexistent natural force or that it's a nonexistent supernatural force?
(To say that anything that exists or occurs inside spacetime is natural is too weak to be adequate as a definition of "natural".)


We should say that anyone who actually adheres to that ridiculous formulation of 'qi' doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about, and they should go study what the fuckers who formulated the concept were talking about. The 'scientifically undetectable life force' version of 'qi' is only spouted by charlatans and fucking hippies, and the mountain-dwelling lunatics of whom the old Chinese proto-scientific community consisted would giggle their fucking shoes off to see it.

They weren't ever talking about undetectable magical bullshit anything. They were trying to work out how shit worked, and anything undetectable would have been as nonsensical to them as it is to us.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#13  Postby Cito di Pense » Nov 19, 2011 11:02 am

andrewk wrote:I've been thinking a little more about this topic, hence the following:

Is it possible for there to be anything that we validly call supernatural?


You wrote a lot, but presented mostly circular language-play you invented, yourself, to make it appear as if you were thinking about something. Verbiage is not a substitute for thinking.

You're not focused so much on 'supernatural' as on 'validity'. Anyone can talk about the 'supernatural'. See? I just did it.

Perhaps you should do a similar analysis on an intersubjective concept of 'validity'. Some think that if two people can talk about a topic, it has 'validity'. But that just means that two people pretend to find one another mutually intelligible. Therefore, do not confuse 'validity' with 'intelligibility', since separate signs are available for each.

You talk about the supernatural as if it were stuff that we simply have no other way to talk about except to say, "It might be so". If that is your personal definition of it, then you should check with other people, instead of pretending to analyse, when what you're doing is pleading with people to accept your definition. People who have an uneasy relationship with 'unknowns' cannot solve this problem with philosophy and circular trips around the dictionary. 'Unknowns' have a coherent meaning in equations you are trying to solve for the 'unknowns'. Elsewhere, not so much.

Why do people plead with one another to accept personal definitions of shit? Can't we all just get along with each other's subjectivity? We do, in general, and try to draw the line at butchering each other over foreign subjectivities, which arises not because of subjectivity, but because people are social animals, and gather into social groups to which identities are attached. That it is incoherent to attach identity to a 'group' outside of mathematics is irrelevant to most people. Cheers.

andrewk wrote:Perhaps if an object is so complex that it cannot be described by any finite set of laws, we could say that it is Irreducibly Supernatural. God could be such an object. However, there are some problems with this:


Trying to explain the incoherence of theology to theists from a non-theistic perspective! Yeah, that should work.

People embarrassed to practice theology as a going concern sometimes try to characterise 'The Universe as a Whole'. If it looks, quacks, walks, eats, and smells like a duck, andrew, odds on, it's a duck. Unless it's an optical, auditory, and olfactory illusion, all rolled into one.
Хлопнут без некролога. -- Серге́й Па́влович Королёв

Translation by Elbert Hubbard: Do not take life too seriously. You're not going to get out of it alive.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#14  Postby andrewk » Nov 19, 2011 10:47 pm

Goldenmane and Clive: what's QI*, or am I better off not knowing?

ETA: *Other than an amusing and often informative panel TV show hosted by the inimitable Stephen Fry.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#15  Postby zoon » Nov 19, 2011 11:37 pm

andrewk wrote:Goldenmane and Clive: what's QI*, or am I better off not knowing?

ETA: *Other than an amusing and often informative panel TV show hosted by the inimitable Stephen Fry.

Wikipedia on Qi (as distinct from Wikipedia on QI).
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#16  Postby Teuton » Nov 20, 2011 12:06 am

andrewk wrote:
Theists who want to rule out all scientifically observable phenomena as potential explanations for existence appear to say:
1. The natural world cannot explain its own existence
2. The natural world consists of all matter and energy, including vacuum potential and other forms of potential energy
3. Anything scientifically observable, or even able to be hypothesised by scientists as affecting the natural world (eg the brane-world ‘bulk’ or the 11-dimensional string-theory manifold), falls within 2 and hence is part of the natural world
If this is indeed what theists believe, then how does it keep gods out of the natural world? As gods can create mass-energy, they are a form of potential energy, and so would be part of the natural world under this definition.


A crucial question is whether energy is by definition physical energy, because if it is not, supernaturalists can draw a distinction between physical energy (PE) and (hyperphysical) mental energy (HME). As the concept of hyperphysical, mental mass is doubtless nonsensical, there is only a PE-mass equivalence but no HME-mass equivalence. (Anyway, a spiritual being with a mass would be a material being.)
Given the distinction between PE and HME, one can say that the natural world is spacetime+matter+physical energy; and the theists can then also say that when God, the divine spirit, created the natural world, he converted a certain amount of his mental energy into physical energy.
Of course, now two basic questions arise as to how such a "magical" HME-PE conversion can conceivably take place, and whether the concept of HME really makes sense in the first place.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#17  Postby Teuton » Nov 20, 2011 12:14 am

Goldenmane wrote:The 'scientifically undetectable life force' version of 'qi' is only spouted by charlatans and fucking hippies, and the mountain-dwelling lunatics of whom the old Chinese proto-scientific community consisted would giggle their fucking shoes off to see it.


The phrase "scientifically undetectable" isn't part of the definition of Qi. But it is defined as some mysterious life force or vital energy, isn't it?
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#18  Postby andrewk » Nov 20, 2011 12:23 am

Thanks for that zoon. Well, having read about qi now, it sounds like a good case study for this idea.
I doubt that many on this forum would believe that qi exists. But qi is said to have physical effects, so it should be possible to test for it. Just say some experiments were done that were consistent with a particular version of qi, and this led to a theory comprising a set of equations that described qi's behaviour, which was tested and confirmed by many independent scientific experiments.
Then I expect that theologians would rapidly adapt to saying that the natural world consists of anything explicable in terms of, matter, energy or qi, and that anything not fitting that is supernatural. So we would have yet another enlargement of the set of 'natural' things, and a diminution of the supernatural set, to suit the theologians' objectives.
Teuton wrote:A crucial question is whether energy is by definition physical energy, because if it is not, supernaturalists can draw a distinction between physical energy (PE) and (hyperphysical) mental energy (HME). As the concept of hyperphysical, mental mass is doubtless nonsensical, there is only a PE-mass equivalence but no HME-mass equivalence. (Anyway, a spiritual being with a mass would be a material being.)
Given the distinction between PE and HME, one can say that the natural world is spacetime+matter+physical energy; and the theists can then also say that when God, the divine spirit, created the natural world, he converted a certain amount of his mental energy into physical energy.
Of course, now two basic questions arise as to how such a "magical" HME-PE conversion can conceivably take place, and whether the concept of HME really makes sense in the first place.

That's another great case study. Say this HME exists. Then it must have some properties, one of which is an ability to be converted into physical energy. If we could learn those properties, then HME would come to be regarded as part of the natural world, because we would be able to describe its behaviour, perhaps using Teuton's elliptical HME field equation, which would rank up there with Einstein's gravitation field equation and the Schrodinger equation as objects of scientific awe and veneration.

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that when people say 'supernatural' they just mean "that which we currently do not understand", despite the theologians' and religious apologists' strenuous objections that that is not what they mean at all.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#19  Postby andrewk » Nov 20, 2011 12:28 am

Teuton wrote:The phrase "scientifically undetectable" isn't part of the definition of Qi. But it is defined as some mysterious life force or vital energy, isn't it?
I don't think it can be part of the definition, as wikipedia (which is never wrong :) ) says:
"The retention or dissipation of qi is believed to affect the health, wealth, energy level, luck and many other aspects of the occupants of the space."
As health, wealth and energy are physical effects, qi would be detectable by measuring its physical effects in suitably designed experiments.
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Re: What is "the natural world"

#20  Postby Nicko » Nov 20, 2011 1:21 am

My understanding of the concept of Qi is that it means "flow". It is therefore extremely context sensitive and extremely deceptive to translate it in all cases as a noun. It can mean different things in different situations. It is really a very vague concept, an early attempt to explain things that we now have more precise and useful explanations for.
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