I was initially inspired by @PdotdQ’s argument that methodological naturalism is tautological (see Side Comments on Christians in Science - #47 by PdotdQ) . Specifically, I was intrigued by this premise:
I disagree with this. I haven’t fully decided yet, but surprisingly, I think atheist blogger Richard Carrier has some good observations when he defines the supernatural (Richard Carrier Blogs: Defining the Supernatural):
In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):
If [naturalism] is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely caused by natural [i.e. fundamentally nonmental] phenomena. But if naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature. In other words, such things would then be partly or wholly caused by themselves, or exist or operate directly or fundamentally on their own.
Thus, Carrier’s defining characteristic of the supernatural is something which is has a fundamentally irreducible mental (or personal) aspect. Because personal agents defined in this way may act in unpredictable ways (even if they can be influenced by the environment and external factors), they cannot be analyzed by science, which requires regularities. Thus, we cannot scientifically analyze and predict the will of God.
Now, atheists might think that this definition of the supernatural renders it implausible, anti-science, outdated, superstitious, and so on. But the idea that there are irreducible aspects of reality is thriving in many circles today. There are many philosophers, even non-religious ones such as Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers, who regard consciousness as irreducible to material explanations. Chalmers, in particular, advocates taking conscious experience as fundamental (Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness). I think it is not a huge step from there to agreeing that the notion of irreducible mental agents is not a ridiculous possibility. It doesn’t prove the existence of the supernatural, but it renders it plausible if we have other grounds to believe that it does exist (as Christians might affirm). Similarly, there are many people who believe that we have irreducible, libertarian free will.
What do you all think of this definition of the supernatural? Does it cohere with how Christians view the supernatural aspects of God, angels, demons, and human souls? What is missing?
I certainly don’t think Carrier captures all aspects of the supernatural in the Bible; for example, miracles are commonly regarded as supernatural phenomena as well, even though they have little to do with the existence of mental aspects. But I think miracles are a different category of supernatural compared to human souls and God - phenomenologically they are just interruptions of the regular natural order.
Side note: Carrier actually reminds me of Augustine, who in The City of God argues that sin is a fundamentally not the result of external factors, but a human’s irreducible will wanting to do evil:
“If the further question be asked, What was the efficient cause of their evil will? there is none. For what is it which makes the will bad, when it is the will itself which makes the action bad. And consequently the bad will is the cause of the bad action, but nothing is the efficient cause of the bad will.”
Augustine, The City of God, Book XII