Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Box Grows

Reading a post at NeuroLogica that ended up reminding me of a woo straw man. I may want to figure out a short phrase for it to give it the Doggerel treatment: A lot of woos think that we dismiss the supernatural a priori because we're naturalists, materialists, etcetera, and it's supernatural or non-material or whatever.

There are two general, very different reasons we dismiss the supernatural. The first is short and sweet: Anything that has an effect on the world is natural. By definition. That leaves the supernatural with only stuff that doesn't affect anything, which isn't much different from nothing at all.

The second is still open to debate in the way that gravity's still open to debate: It's all about the evidence, and new evidence could overturn what we know. There's no a priori dismissal there, just extraordinary demands for extraordinary claims. And the woos generally don't live up to fairly ordinary scientific demands. Alties try to say their treatments aren't subject to double-blind control studies, psychics try to say their powers become unreliable when tested, and perpetual motion advocates have convenient malfunctions when showtime comes around.

We'll believe it when we see the good evidence. As for what that'll do for our philosophy: Not much. Discovering psychic powers for will fall into the same category as the verification of dark matter... only maybe a bit cooler because a lot of us are comic book geeks and we'd like the chance to put on an outlandish costume for something other than a convention. The "supernatural" is a category that shrinks as we understand more. Naturalism expands with every new discovery because it's inherently expansive in its definition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pretty much the only sort of thing that's truly untestable by scientific means would be some sort of bizarre one-time-in-the-universe event where laws temporarily change in some random way. Heck if we weren't looking there at the time we'd miss it completely. That said, I'm not going to say that science will "eventually tell us all the answers". I'm only confident enough to say it's our best possible shot, and if you've got a better method (namely, one that doesn't just logically break down to guessing at random), I'd like to hear it.