PAMLA 2014 Paper: Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here.

The paper that I presented yesterday represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two:

  1. Physicality
  2. Uniformity
  3. Open vs. Closed Causality
  4. Mental Objects & Properties
  5. Teleology

Final Slide

You can read the full transcript of the paper that I presented here, which includes all of the images of my attending PowerPoint presentation.

-Matthew Ferguson

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11 Responses to PAMLA 2014 Paper: Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

  1. Patrick says:

    In your blogpost “Defining Theism, Atheism, Supernaturalism, and Naturalism” you wrote:

    “My naturalism is the view that there is no metaphysical teleology. Our ultimate reality has no intentionality, goal orientation, or agency. This follows from the standard meaning of when we say that something has a “natural explanation.” Something that happens naturally occurs without any plan or design, but as the result of mechanical forces. The universe was not designed for anything nor is it moving towards anything. Naturalism predicts a “blind” cosmos of the very sort we live in.”

    There IS teleology in the natural order, at least if one understands “teleology” in the Aristotelian sense. The Aristotelian concept of teleology can be formulated as “having the potentiality to change in a predictable way or to move towards a predictable goal”. Here are some examples of such teleology in the natural order:

    – An oxygen atom has the potentiality to combine with two hydrogen atoms into a water molecule.

    – Water has the potentiality to freeze at 0° C.

    – Glass has the potentiality to break.

    – An acorn has the potentiality to grow into an oak.

    • Hey Patrick,

      Thanks for your comment! Indeed, I needed to specify that I am NOT referring to teleology in the “Aristotelian” sense, but rather in the “Platonic” sense. The Platonic sense of teleology is more akin to Paley’s teleological argument for God, which maintains that the universe reflects a willful process of design that points to an intelligent creator. The Aristotelian sense of teleology pertains more to substance being directed toward certain ends, which, as you define, can be formulated as “having the potentiality to change in a predictable way or to move towards a predictable goal.”

      As professional philosopher André Ariew in “Platonic and Aristotelian Roots of Teleological Arguments” (pg. 8) explains:

      “Insofar as Aristotle’s teleology pertains to explanations of natural items, it is misleading to cast off Aristotle’s teleology as reading purposive behavior into natural events. This perception of Aristotle’s teleology is the result of conflating Aristotle’s naturalistic teleology with Plato’s … Plato’s natural teleology is and Aristotle’s is not creationist, anthropomorphic, and externally evaluative … Aristotle’s natural teleology is and Plato’s is not naturalistic, immanent, and functional.”

      Ariew (pgs. 8-9) goes on to identify two distinct types of teleology in Aristotle’s writings:

      “Teleological explanation in Aristotle pertains broadly to goal-directed actions or behavior. Aristotle invokes teleology when an event or action pertains to goals … we can distinguish two distinct conceptions of teleology in Aristotle’s writings and at least two sub-categories:

      I. Agency-centered teleology:
      i. Behavioral. Activities undertaken for the sake of something, which may be either a state or further action.
      ii. Artifactual. Activities undertaken for the sake of producing an object of a certain sort (artificial).

      II. Teleology pertaining to natural organisms.
      i. Formal. Biological developmental processes that occur for the sake of self-preservation or preservation of the species (form).
      ii. Functional. Parts of organisms that are present for the sake of the organism possessing them.

      I and II are distinct notions of teleology … Agent-specific teleology (I) is purposive, rational, and intentional, and represents external evaluation. The goal is the object of an agent’s desire or choice … Teleology pertaining to natural organisms is distinct: non-purposive (though seemingly so), non-rational, non-intentional, and immanent – that is, an inner principle of change. The goal is not an object of any agent’s desire.”

      The paper that I have presented here and the earlier article you quoted are making the argument that agency-specific teleology (I) does not exist at the basic, reducible level in naturalism. There is no agency-specific teleology that guides our universe, and such agency-specific teleology (at the irreducible level) is characteristic of supernatural phenomena. This first, distinct understanding of teleology also relates to my 4th criterion of “irreducible mental” properties, since I am specifically referring to the sort of teleologies exhibited by minds and agents.

      Naturalist philosopher Richard Carrier (Sense & Goodness Without God, pg. 273) also makes a similar distinction:

      “The Teleological Argument for God is that the universe exhibits teleology, teleology entails a mind (since only minds have desires or intentions), therefore a mind must lie behind the universe, and that would be God. But as we’ve seen throughout this book already, this argument fails twice: teleology doesn’t entail a mind, and the universe doesn’t exhibit any sort of teleology distinctive of a mind …. One particular way to put this is that there is no high teleology anywhere in the organization of the universe. By that I mean the sort of intention or goal one can only expect from a conscious being like us, as opposed to the sort of goals exhibited by, say, a flat worm or computer game or ant colony … The most teleological force we observe in nature, apart from the goals and intentions of animals – whose cause we already understand to be evolution by natural selection – is that of natural selection itself.”

      This paper is arguing that there is no “high teleology,” as Carrier defines it, exhibited by natural phenomena (at least at the irreducible level), however, the teleology characteristic of natural selection is compatible with the “natural” as I have defined it here.

      • Patrick says:

        The paper about several concepts of teleology mentioned in the following link and written by Philosopher Edward Feser may be helpful to you:

        As for the Teleological Argument for God Feser arrives at a conclusion different from Richard Carrier’s.

        Besides, if you accept the Aristotelian concept of teleology you depart from mainstream naturalism, as naturalism has to a large extent been antiteleological and anti-Aristotelian. An indication of this is the controversy over Thomas Nagel’s view concerning teleology in his book “Mind and Cosmos”.

        • Yeah, I plan to interact more with both Feser and Nagel too as I continue research on this project. However, I don’t think that Ariew agrees with Nagel or Feser’s analysis, since Ariew argues that it is primarily Platonic teleology that is incompatible with naturalism. Thanks!

  2. Patrick says:

    As for the debate over Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos” the following contribution is very informative:

  3. Hey Matthew,

    I have a couple of questions about your conception of the supernatural:

    With regard to humans or other animals, your conception entails – given that there are no souls – that they are natural. But what if there were souls?
    For example, let’s consider the counterfactual hypothesis that – as many theists believe – an omnimax (omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect) irreducibly mental being (God) exists – so, naturalism is false, on your definition – and humans and other animals have souls (or are souls; there are different varieties) – immortal or not -, which are not reducible to any particles or non-mental stuff – God just creates those souls each time.

    In that scenario, are humans, cats and dogs supernatural, or more accurately partly supernatural, in a way similar to the way in which a witch would be supernatural? (I’m accepting dogs, etc., do have subjective experiences as well, and so souls in that scenario).

    P. S. I sent a longer reply to your post on Civitas Humana (two, actually, the second was a minor correction of the first) a few days ago, but it reads it’s awaiting moderation, so I thought I post a shorter reply here. Please let me know if you prefer that I post in only one of the blogs.

  4. Matthew,

    Is there a way to provide a mechanism to supernatural explanations? Stuff like schmatons and supernatural organs that explain how the interactions between supernatural entities and the natural world occur. I have seen this problem once.

    The difficult part is, of course, give a reason for them to be supernatural, since all these mechanisms resemble natural mechanisms in one way or another.

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