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

From: Gregory Arago <>
Date: Wed Apr 22 2009 - 06:53:13 EDT

“I can't answer for him, Ted, but I think it's clear that Gregory isn't asking about ID, but rather about the nature of science itself. “ – Jon
Yes, this is entirely correct, though again with the caveat that saying “the nature of science” (tNoS) presumes a lot already. Jon realizes what I meant about being ‘fixated’ on ‘intelligent + design,’ Ted, because I wasn’t asking about it and needn’t involve it. The ID folks I know would for all I’ve seen stumble on distinguishing ‘non-natural agents that are not supernatural’ too. But here I was interested in MN as an appropriate or inappropriate philosophical assumption for ‘doing science’ and not in ID.
“What if there is truly a ‘non-natural, but non-supernatural’ component to humanity?” – Jon
This is a golden question for human-social sciences, even for all of anthropic thought, but it is likely uninteresting or deemed an irrelevant question for all of the natural or physical scientists on the list, up to the point when they engage with human-social sciences or when theology is involved because theology involves people and interpretation and reflexivity. You have to remember that ‘science’ in the sense meant by A. Comte is ‘positive’ and natural-physical science is based on this assumption. I am arguing as much with the view that science must be positivistic as I am with the notion that science must be naturalistic; so please include my challenge to Methodological Positivism and to Methodological Physicalism as well. This is probably starting to sound too theoretical and philosophical for you, Jon? But it needs to be made clear upfront.
“Can science study the ‘non-natural’ part of humanity?  And what does non-natural really mean in this case, if not supernatural?” – Jon
These are good questions. Let’s take an example. Is language ‘natural’? In the beginning was the word, wasn’t it (a theological assumption)? Was ‘the word’ before nature or Nature, as Moorad is now capitalising it? Are people being reductionistic if they conclude that all language is ‘natural’? Is ‘discourse analysis’ a scientific method of studying language? Is philology a ‘science?’ It is undoubtedly ‘in’ the academy and scholarly work is done on languages. Sure, linguistics or philology is almost certainly within a ‘Faculty of Arts’ at respective American Universities (as it is in Canada), so does this make it ‘not-scientific’ or ‘not-natural’? What if we simply drop the MN assumption here and treat ‘language’ *as if* it were ‘non-natural’?
I have taken this a step further in previous conversations at ASA in distinguishing between human-made things and non-human-made things. Neither ID nor TE or EC makes this distinction.
“Humans are ‘non-natural’ agents in the sense meant by your question” – Ted Davis
Earlier I referred to the term ‘natural-plus,’ which applies to human persons. I don’t believe human beings are supernatural because we are of the Earth, just as all of the other creatures on this planet. We are natural, but we are also ‘more than just natural.’ It surprises me that you folks don’t offer more possibilities than just spiritual or soul, though these are legitimate and I believe them to be accurate and true categories (if one can call a category ‘true’). But the main point I’m making here is: there are other ‘non-natural’ categories as well. Keith Miller failed to acknowledge this and in so doing proved empty his rhetoric about MN – what he could not fathom is what overturns his philosophical assumption about ‘science’ because it reveals a bias towards either natural or supernatural, and away from anything ‘non-natural that is not supernatural.’ I’ll address this in another thread which shows why he and his
 MN were defeated on this issue.
It seems to me what needs to happen when a natural or physical scientist starts to think about the ‘non-natural’ components of humanity is that he or she must ‘take off’ their ‘natural-physical scientific method hat’ and ‘put on’ another way of looking at humankind. Don’t look at human beings just as objects; you are a human being yourself! Human-social science doesn’t drive like a robot. One can’t understand ‘structure’ as discussed by anthropologists, sociologists or economists if one is defining ‘structure’ as an engineer would and thinking about human beings through engineer’s spectacles (though the term ‘social engineering’ is sometimes used). One needs to confront the language with respect to human beings on the terms in which it is discussed within the human-social sciences. One cannot be an outsider here and expect linguistic success and understanding of the ‘meaning’ that Jon is asking me for.
Science ‘works’ through processes, not through a single process; this is not news to anyone here. I don’t accept the total package of David Hull’s view of ‘science as process’ because it easily slips back into a particular philosophical commitment to materialism or physicalism or naturalism, depending on one’s conceptualisation (as Moorad has clearly shown by insisting on speaking not about ‘natural’ with regard to defining science, but rather speaking about what is or is not ‘physical’). The same goes for Kuhn’s notion of ‘scientific revolution’ or ‘paradigm shift;’ these are dependent upon prior philosophical assumptions when it comes to defining science as if it could deal with ‘non-natural things that are not supernatural.’ This is why one cannot simply discard philosophy or try to speak just about ‘science in action’ (like Bruno Latour did, in scientifically studying the activities of scientists) because there
 is a deeper level of commitments and beliefs that inevitably enters the discussion somewhere. It is this ‘somewhere’ that is a place Keith Miller, as he has indicated by silence, is not willing to go.
“Some [of God’s activities] are within the ordinary action of the natural world, and we refer to them as nature, and study them using scientific methods.  Maybe some of God's activities are both.  What then is this middle category that has been suggested?  What does Gregory suggest we call it - does it have a name?” – Jon
If I am reading properly, Jon is asking for a name for the so-called ‘middle category’ between God and nature. Well, the holiday just celebrated was Easter. Jon asks for a ‘name’ of the methods that are aimed at the non-natural. Then are many such methods that are used, which are outside of the scope of natural-physical science.
“What are those methods called, and how do they work in practice?” - Jon
I suggest you go to those who study non-natural things all the time and ask them, without wearing a lab-coat, without wearing MN spectacles and without expecting answers that will correspond with the language used in natural science.  Sovereignty is a beautiful and cruel card for us to play. I had to include a section in my dissertation which includes ‘methods,’ just as every human-social scientist has to do. Unfortunately, on this ASA list I appear to be a community of one who can speak about these things and you seem to need more convincing than just hearing from me that ‘methods’ exist in non-natural sciences too.
“fundamentally goes back to a question of what science is and what is its scope” - Jon
The German-Russian tradition is the better one for looking at this question holistically than the Anglo-American one because it recognizes the ‘scientificity’ of non-natural sciences. This is likely at the heart of many of my disagreements with those on the ASA list who would define ‘science’ – ‘what it is and what is its scope,’ in Jon’s words – as being limited to MN. That philosophical assumption (and I certainly agree with Keith Miller than MN is a philosophical assumption), folks, leads to a silly definition of science because it is (or should be) obvious to everyone that science can be applied to ‘non-natural things’ as well, even those ‘non-natural things that are not supernatural.’ HPSS has demonstrated a new understanding of ‘science’ loud and clear in recent decades (e.g. Lakatos, Feyerabend and Popper) and sooner or later this knowledge will catch-up with (or trickle-down to) natural-physical scientists
This brings us to the place where George’s suggested ‘inferiority complex’ was simply an ad-hominem attack on my character. Jon asked: “Do you consider sociology and psychology to be superior to other sciences, because it has moved beyond the simple dichotomy of natural vs. supernatural?” No, I don’t consider any field in the academy ‘superior’ to another; they each serve in their own sphere of study. Many of the spheres overlap with one another in practical applications and when taking a holistic approach to the unity of the university or of the academy or of knowledge entirely, once interdisciplinarity is accepted and celebrated.
Sociology, the field in which I’m currently engaged (having studied and received academic degrees in two other fields as well), should not be said to have “moved beyond the simple dichotomy of natural vs. supernatural,” but rather that it offers its own sovereign view of what those terms mean – natural, supernatural and non-natural. There are many categories that sociology studies that are ‘non-natural’ categories. Thus, the philosophical assumption of MN does not apply to sociology, which is why I opened the door for Keith to say that MN applies only to natural sciences and not to all sciences. It is a second surprise, after his silence in general, that he did not take this easy way out.
“If there is a natural component of human behavior, can those aspects be studied by scientists using naturalistic means?” - Jon
Yes, one can apply natural-physical scientific methods to study the natural-physical aspects of humanity. One needs other methods than natural-physical ones to study the non-natural or non-physical aspects of humanity, i.e. the nature-plus that we so obviously exhibit. ‘Behaviour’ is a stick category because it can involve ideology as well, e.g. Skinner’s behaviourism. ‘Action’ and ‘agency’ are more common master categories today, at least in sociology, than is ‘behaviour.’
Finally, Jon writes:
“I'm more interested in real, practical application to the operation of science.  For instance, can a purely naturalistic, mechanistic view explain and adequately study such sciences as sociology or psychology? Or on the other hand, does a ‘supernatural’ element in human existence mean that those sciences can (or should) be open to investigating the supernatural?  Or if there is a third category, is it distinct from the other two in genuinely scientific processes, or is it actually just a compound of the natural and spiritual elements that exist within us?”
Yes, there are many sociologists and psychologists (e.g. virtually all eVo psychs) who study their field or discipline with a naturalistic, mechanistic or physicalistic underlying philosophy. Yes, the ‘non-natural’ elements in human existence are what those sciences can and do study. One doesn’t need a ‘third category’ here, a kind of half-breed or centaur, which is half-natural, half-non-natural because it wouldn’t make sense. One simply needs to respect those categories that are ‘non-natural but also not supernatural’ in order to engage with the sciences, philosophies and theologies of those things. If there *IS* a spiritual element in us, this contradicts the purely naturalistic approach to psychology by definition, wouldn’t you say Jon?
So, those psychologists who philosophically assume there is a non-natural, e.g. spiritual, dimension to human existence are not practising MN in their work; they are involving an extra-natural category. MN may thus work for geology, but not for psychology IF one assumes that non-natural aspects of humankind are legitimate subjects/objects of study for psychological sciences. Here the commitments, beliefs and motivations of the scientist significantly impact how they perceive the meaning, scope and limits of the academic discipline and/or scientific field.
In his first post in the thread, Jon asked:
“If ‘methodological naturalism’ is too simplistic for studying human activity, and if purely theological/spiritual mechanisms are inappropriate for a scientific field of study, what other category of scientific research would you offer instead?  You mention philosophy and theology – do you consider these to be scientific means of investigating either the natural, supernatural, or other non-natural aspect of humanity?”
Could you say what a ‘theological/spiritual mechanism’ is Jon? I don’t quite understand the meaning. One needs an ‘anthropic method’ to study human activity, by definition. (This approach differs from Brandon Carter’s ‘anthropic principle’ in cosmology and astrophysics, a concept duo that was coined in 1973, a decade before MN.) Philosophy and theology are not ‘scientific means,’ rather they are independent and interrelated realms of knowledge that work best together with sciences (both natural-physical and human-social) in seeking a holistic understanding of the universe and our human selves in it; past, present and future. If I were an atheist I would likely just speak of science and philosophy working together; theology would be a hidden or covered realm of mystery to the agnostic as well.
Hopefully that helps to clarify a few things, though probably in another language than Jon expected. At least, I think I’ve addressed all of his questions.
Yours sincerely, 
p.s. again, this would have been two pages in my dissertation, rather than on the ASA list. Hopefully it is worth something here to Jon and Ted and others…

--- On Wed, 4/22/09, Jon Tandy <> wrote:

From: Jon Tandy <>
Subject: RE: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents
Received: Wednesday, April 22, 2009, 8:10 AM


I have always tended to see human character as dualistic, with the natural
and supernatural (spirit and body) overlapping in what we often refer to as
the "soul" in a theological sense. What exactly that means, I'm
sure I couldn't fully explain if I had to, or how science can completely delineate
between them or identify a truly distinct "middle category".

Human agency may be one example, but is it really "implicitly
supernatural" (in the sense of "beyond nature," or in the other sense of
"divine")? There may be other examples, which I would invite anyone including Gregory to
suggest. But my clarification of the two meanings of "supernatural"
may be revealing - when we talk about the supernatural, do we mean divine, or just
beyond nature? Here again, it doesn't matter what ID or any particular ID
enthusiast may say here, it fundamentally goes back to a question of what
science is and what is its scope.

For Gregory, I continue to wait for him to expound what
non-natural/non-supernatural means to science. Sure, science as a
discipline is made (as well, its principles are discovered) by humans, but
the subject of science (rocks, stars, light, organisms, human behavior) is
*not* generally made by humans, but observed and investigated by us. By
contrast, the activities of God are not subject to human investigation
except to the degree that God makes them known in the real world. Some of
those activities that He reveals are outside the ordinary action of the
natural world - we refer to them as miracle. Some are within the ordinary
action of the natural world, and we refer to them as nature, and study them
using scientific methods. Maybe some of God's activities are both. What
then is this middle category that has been suggested? What does Gregory
suggest we call it - does it have a name? And what methods does science
employ to study them, if philosophers of science define what science can
include? What are those methods called, and how do they work in practice?

Another thing I suspect from Gregory's response is that he is looking at a
very philosophical view of "what science is", rather than defining
some process of how science works, in regard to a middle category between natural
and supernatural. If so, I will leave the discussion to the philosophers,
because I'm more interested in real, practical application to the operation
of science. For instance, can a purely naturalistic, mechanistic view
explain and adequately study such sciences as sociology or psychology? Or
on the other hand, does a "supernatural" element in human existence
mean that those sciences can (or should) be open to investigating the
supernatural? Or if there is a third category, is it distinct from the
other two in genuinely scientific processes, or is it actually just a
compound of the natural and spiritual elements that exist within us?

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Received on Wed Apr 22 06:53:58 2009

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