Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Apr 14 2009 - 17:10:35 EDT

Since my views continue to be misrepresented, I’ll try to set the record record straight.


I have not “refused to commit” to the substance of either TE or MN. If anyone identifies me as either a TE or a proponent of MN I will not object, though I may wish to go into more detail depending on circumstances. Virtually everyone in the English speaking world interested in science-religion discussions has a general knowledge of what those terms mean. But I have also recognized - & I’m hardly the only one – that those terms, & especially TE, have some disadvantages. I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of time debating whether “evolutionary creationism” is better than TE – in some ways it is & in some not.


I have not said anything there that I haven’t said before on this list, in some cases more than once. It is content, not the words we use to label that content, that is important. (Contrary to pop history, the Christian faith does not stand or fall with the word homoousion, & Athanasius, e.g., was willing to use other language.)


I have also said before, but it bears repeating, that it is important to recognize the way words are used in the relevant community of discourse. For English speaking people engaged in discussions about biological evolution, ID & related issues, the way Johnson & others (mis)use the term “naturalism” is much more significant that discussions about that term by European &c scholars. Since a major part of the IDers’ strategy has been to use the word in a polemical way, ignoring any distinctions, it would ill serve those of us who want to correct the damage they do to avoid the word entirely. That doesn’t mean, however, that for some purposes it may be better to express “the concept formerly known as MN” in other ways. Stating it as “Attribute nothing to God or the gods while doing scientific work,” helps to bring the IDers’ real agenda into the open.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Gregory Arago
  To: Keith Miller ; George Murphy ; Bill Powers
  Cc: AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation
  Sent: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 12:11 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

        To Bill, Keith, Merv, George and others,


        This was written at the same time as the previous post to Keith, which seemed to require a single, direct response. The message below is to everyone here.


        “The MN position appears to be something of a gentlemen's agreement to speak only of Nature, permitting some, under their breath, to think of Nature as God's creation, even the manifestation of His Will.” – Bill


        Yes, this is the atmosphere in which MN as a particular concept duo in history arose, emerged; was invented. Those who claim MN has been used as a principle for hundreds or thousands of years are in love with retro-diction; they thrive on anachronism. They are being unscientific to suggest this. It is their personal brand of historiography.


        I like that Bill intentionally capitalises the word ‘nature,’ presumably to show that some people treat Nature in a similar way, both as conceptual names, to how they treat God. This is true especially of naturalists and/or natural scientists. That is a point of significant contention, though often it passes by without mention or notice.


        “There are certain presumptions made about ‘Nature’ especially in high energy physics which smack of just such an ‘understanding’ of ‘Nature's character’." – Bill


        Yes, indeed, everyone comes to the discussion table (e.g. this list) with presumptions. Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” (1919) is a great place to refresh one’s view of this. George and Keith seem not to acknowledge ‘Nature’s character’ – which is seen as a serious problem by Bill and me. The characterless-ness of nature (cf. dehumanisation) is their presupposition – nature doesn’t have a character – but it is thankfully not ours.


        Yet again, it is strange to see George refusing to commit to something. Earlier it was TE, now it is ‘natural.’ Soon, will it be MN? He writes, “I am also not deeply committed to the term ‘natural’.” One may then ask, why are you defending so profusely MN (or maybe it is not so profusely?), without commitment to the term ‘natural’? This doesn’t seem to make any sense! It is quite obvious to me that George is defending ‘methodological anti-supernaturalism’ (MAS) – using a theological dogma – rather than MN, since a shallow commitment to the meaning of ‘natural’ would allow for this. Maybe here his theology is outwrestling his theoretical physics for conversational priority?


        And George would blame Philip Johnson for the controversy surrounding ‘naturalism’! Oh, wouldn't the Germans and French and Russians and Brazilians and many others be upset! That simply has to be a misprint – attributing such an impact to this one Berkley Professor, doesn’t it? As it is, however, philosophers and non-natural scientists hold the trump cards *almost everywhere* over the meaning of ‘naturalism,’ which natural scientists may one day concede. From a philosophical perspective, and not a naturalistic one, this only makes sense.


        “I know definitions of the categories of "natural" and "supernatural" are necessarily hard to come by. Nevertheless, the latter is assumed to transcend the former *by its very name* is it not?” – Merv


        Actually, no, that assumption is misleading. ‘Supra’ is the prefix that indicates ‘transcendence.’ ‘Super’ rather indicates 'sameness' (i.e. not 'transcendence'), as says: “exhibiting the characteristics of its type to an extreme or excessive degree.” Think super-size or super-saver or even super-duper. Maybe the aboriginals would call such a view 'big nature,' but surely not 'divine.' This is one of the ways that those who conflate ‘non-natural’ with ‘supernatural’ are misleading others about ‘the character *or* nature of science,’ i.e. with their philosophical assumption they call MN. Keith is currently demonstrating this. Yet such a view of 'super' and 'supra' can be corrected with due care and attention.


        “In order to study God scientifically we would have [t]o do experiments on God.” - George


        So are you saying that theoretical physicists are not ‘scientists’ but that experimental physicists *are* scientists?! I don’t like the language of ‘study God scientifically’ much either, but surely we can acquire ‘knowledge of God through study,’ can’t we? Scientia – knowledge.


        Merv speaks about “first expanding the domain of science to beyond nature itself…”


        Yes, the domain of science transcends ‘mere nature’ already! Who said 'science' means 'nature only'? Culprit please come forth! Just read HPS in the last four decades to incorporate this into your view of ‘science.’ There is not ‘one science,’ there are ‘many sciences.’ This is virtually the first lesson in modern-day science studies (not the 1920s stuff). Those who prefer to defend a monolithic or singular view of 'science' (call it 'Science') are way behind the wave.


        “My principal aim is to suggest that the term ‘natural’ may have no cash value.” – Bill


        Yes, this is indeed provocative and probably perplexing! Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say the term ‘natural’ has ‘no value,’ it is nevertheless an obviously convoluted term, amplified by the divisive specialisation or institutional division of academic labour in the academy which hosts faculties and departments in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. And if you’ll not be offended by my mentioning this, I’ve rarely seen or met a North American with a balanced understanding of the relationship between ‘natural sciences and human-social sciences’ *in contrast with* ‘science and religion’ discourse. This is largely due to America’s Anglo-Saxon academic roots, and for example with the cacaphonic Malthus-Darwin combination, in light of neo-Enlightenment perspectives today, which still display them.


        Don writes: “Science has become increasingly important since the Enlightenment, so we need to have a word that distinguishes interactions that science can study from those science cannot study. ‘Natural’ works much of the time. Among other things, the word refers to explanations that don't need to invoke God.”


        It’s not as much a question of importance as of amplification. Art is still ‘important’ today and sports are almost everywhere amplified too. There are areas that science cannot study, but in which knowledge is nevertheless available, attractive and important. We are living, after all, in a ‘knowledge society’ (Daniel Bell), not in a ‘science society,’ though science penetrates our social lives deeply. Thus, it is not in 'distinguishing' science from non-science, but rather in figuring out how both science and non-science can work together for human flourishing. The priority is based on how what we know and experience (cf. experiment) benefits how we live and where we’re headed. And we need philosophy as badly in today’s academy as we need science and technology. That is, unless you would slag philosophy as a voice worthy of the past, but not the present. Wouldn’t it be helpful if more ASAers could uplift philosophy in their scientific programs?


        “That is the difference between philosophical and scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is always concerned with some part or aspect of life; philosophic knowledge is always concerned with the whole of human existence” … “one of our major tragedies is how little true philosophy there is amongst us. In our personal life, wisdom as an ideal is more and more replaced by success and wealth and adjustment. In our universities philosophy is being replaced by the study of natural science and useful techniques – studies that are popular because they lead to comfort and power. It is a sad fact but must be admitted that we are a continent which has almost entirely given up the idea of philosophy.” – George Grant (1998 [1954]: 34, 38-39)


        I’m still waiting for Keith to explain for us what he means by ‘non-natural agents’ and how they link with reality, all the while glad to see that he is thinking of ways that ‘transcend science’ yet which still interact with the discourse of what is sometimes called ‘scientific practice’ or 'doing science.'


        Early Easters week regards,



        p.s. please let’s not jump into the diversion of ‘creator and creation’ (as George would have us do) because the main topic here is ‘natural and non-natural or supernatural’ - that's our trio. George can start another thread if he wishes and involve natura and naturans too.


        p.p.s. yeah, and I missed this contribution by Keith: “The whole point of Nelson's argument is that science must be free to investigate the non-natural and supernatural. He is arguing for the expansion of science to the investigation of the supernatural.” Notice please that in the first sentence Keith speaks of ‘non-natural’ *and* ‘supernatural’ as if they are separate. But in the second sentence he uses only ‘supernatural.’ Is this because he conflates the two? Unless he says otherwise and gives examples, it seems onlookers must accept that this is what he thinks.


        p.p.p.s. in case y’all were wondering about Grant’s allegiances – like a hobbit asking ‘which side are you on?’ – he writes: “For that is finally what philosophy is – the practice of the presence of God.” (1954)


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Received on Tue Apr 14 17:11:34 2009

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