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

From: Jon Tandy <>
Date: Sat Apr 25 2009 - 08:38:25 EDT



I'll attempt a few responses to your recent e-mails.


"Let’s take an example. Is language ‘natural’?"


There may have been better examples you could have used here. You would have to define what is language. On a basic level, language is a means of communication between and within species. Apes have a language, so do dogs, cats, pigs, and birds. So yes, language does appear to be "natural," as we see many different species that have developed their own means of communication. I don't suppose either you or I could prove that such communication schemes were "designed" or "developed purely naturalistically."


But language is more than the physical symbols and sounds used to communicate. There are ideas formed, there is a will expressed in making certain information known. Animals sense danger and communicate it to others. They intentionally communicate in other symbolic language when baby birds ask mother birds for food, or when defending their territory. How is this different from the intentionality of human language? I don't know, I'm not a linguist.


If language in humans is to be taken as different from language in the "natural world," on what basis? I certainly would be open to considering some, because I *want* humans to be considered special and "beyond natural." Certainly there are elements of human language that reflect abstract thought, which you don't often find in animals, but what about the studies with abstract thought in non-human primates? (I've been told of them, but haven't studied it much.) These are interesting questions, but I'm not sure your example of language identifies a truly "non-natural" phenomenon. As to philology, I would reveal my ignorance if I said too much about it. Certainly the discipline, as all scientific disciplines, is a creation of humanity. You don't find other animals studying the form and purpose of their own languages, they just use them.


Are human-made things truly distinguishable from natural things? I could assert that my creation of some new invention was not natural, but on what basis? Does this reflect a presupposition that human activity is "not natural," rather than constituting evidence that it is?


Are human-made branches of study non-natural? If I were a naturalistic scientist, I would say no. Humans developed larger brains through the process of evolution, larger brains made it possible for them to engage in more advanced cognitive processes, they developed tools to solve problems of food gathering and production, so they had more time to engage in philosophical exercises. It was a *natural* progression that mankind might eventually develop intellectually to the point of analyzing why they think at all, and why the world acts as it does, and how can they harness the processes of nature in the same way as their ancestors harnessed the power of fire.


I'm not saying I believe all these things – only that I don't see how one can make a conclusive proof that these concepts, even of the development of philosophy itself, was not a "natural result" of biological and cognitive development. Any ideas? I believe this progression wasn't just natural, but that God has given us intelligence, given us a spiritual nature, and blessed us with the gifts of His Spirit. I believe He directed mankind's development toward certain outcomes of human capabilities of thought and social development. But can I prove that God was providentially behind it, and that it was not just the result of nature acting on nature? Probably not in any meaningful scientific sense. Maybe I could make a reasonable philosophical justification for the position, but then we are not doing science.


This is also where I believe the definition of "natural" is being equivocated, between "that which is made of physical particles and forces" and "that which acts according to its character and capabilities." I think some of your criticism of naturalism (and others' defense of it) is misdirected, because the meaning of "nature" is not clearly distinguished. In particular, you have taken issue with the phrase "nature of science." I will ask, what is the nature of God? Well, he is merciful and loving by His very nature; he is also just and holy, and willing to forgive. Does that mean God is natural (i.e. physical)? Absolutely not; I'm using an entirely different definition of "nature". You may prefer the term "character of God", but "nature" is a completely valid usage.


All this being said, I have acknowledged that the social sciences are science, and that there are methods used in the social sciences, which are different from the methods used in other sciences. Every scientific discipline has methods that are different from all other branches. If sociology needs "anthropic" methods to deal with the systematic study of human-social behavior, that only makes sense. I generally agree that Methodological Naturalism is an appropriate philosophy for the natural sciences, but that it may not be appropriate to extend it to the social sciences, at least not without significant clarification.


I don't take philosophy to be a scientific discipline. Indeed, you mention it as an independent and interrelated branch of knowledge that works together with science. While a holistic approach certainly has merit, this discussion was (I thought) about what is science, and what methods and assumptions should science employ. I have suggested that sociological studies quantifying trends in human behavior are scientific. They are scientific because they employ systematic means of quantifying, analyzing, comparing, and explaining the causes of certain behavior. Questions about "why" people react to specific stimuli might employ cause and effect thinking, as well as underlying philosophical assumptions. Questions about why we *should* act in a certain way is clearly more philosophical and not scientific.


Which parts of sociology are scientific, or in what varying degrees? It seems to me the further one gets away from cause and effect relationships and natural phenomena (in the broadest sense), the further one gets away from science. Maybe it's not a hard line, like between physics and theology, but there must be a distinction even if we don't allow for supernatural causes of certain human behavior. Philosophy of science is by definition a hybrid of disciplines. To the extent that it relies primarily on philosophy, then to a similar extent I would say that it removes itself from the practice of science.


So maybe it's not so much that MN is an inadequate definition of how science works, but rather that it's appropriate to acknowledge that there are "other areas of knowledge" that are equally valid to that of science. These may be conflated (and very important) when studying human behavior, but that doesn't make those other areas of knowledge the same thing as science. There are also different definitions of "natural" depending on the branch of study. For physicists, natural things may not be physical – particles seem to be reducible to energy, and may in fact be energy when it comes down to it. For chemists, they certainly are physical, at least for most practical purposes. Moving into biology, there may be aspects of purpose, character, form, and function that are not tangible but yet are according to the nature of the biological entity being studied. In sociology, there may be natural patterns of human behavior which can be studied and quantified using scientific methods, but there may be other aspects of humanity that diverge into other non-scientific areas, which must be studied using non-scientific methods and theories (such as philosophy or theology).




Jon Tandy


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Received on Sat Apr 25 08:38:57 2009

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