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The naturalist God

July 28, 2009

I’ve been going back and forth on a post at Main Street Plaza (Grayer than thou?) about who stays Mormon, who doesn’t stay Mormon, and why that is the case. (Actually, I’ve been going back and forth about the same issue here, so how coincidental!) And with John C, I’ve been having a conversation in comments about the supernatural.

The very idea of the supernatural does not amuse me. Appeals and invocations to the supernatural do not register very well…I hear words, but they don’t mean anything.

The supernatural, to me, seems like something that is hypersterile. It can’t be touched by us in any way, shape, or fashion. So, in that sense, it actually doesn’t matter to me (and I don’t see how it does to anyone).

But I think there can be some (not really, but go with me) reconciliation. I categorically say things are natural (don’t confuse that for materialist…maybe?), so couldn’t it be possible then that the supernatural simply represents a category of natural phenomena whose natural explanations are not known?

We talk a lot about the “God of the gaps” — the idea of God being in (or responsible for) naturalist phenomena that people just couldn’t explain. So, the problem with these things was a problem of labeling…so, Zeus doesn’t cause thunder and lightning, whoops!

But at the same time, the phenomena described *do* exist. The description was just wrong. Lightning does exist. A system for weather, how chaotic it seems, is deterministic based on initial conditions.

So I think that the honest thing to do would be to try to get a reasonable and good description of things. So, let’s say we want to talk about Mormon Priesthood Power. If priesthood power exists and recognizably affects our world and universe, then I think that, eventually, it should be discoverable empirically.

Does that mean, if we have no evidence of it now, that we can be sure that Priesthood power doesn’t exist?

Not quite. After all, when science progresses and readjusts and changes and updates, what is happening is that people are realizing that once they didn’t have the instruments or tools to see certain vitally important variables…but now they do have those tools. One needed a microscope to figure out about germs. And so on.

So, what if we simply lack the tools to repeatedly and reliably evaluate something like priesthood power?

I think when we lack these tools, then that means we are justified in not believing. If there is no convincing reason (some people, of course, will be convinced by personal spiritual experiences or faith) to believe, then we don’t believe. This is different from believing something doesn’t exist, of course. The lack of belief is the reasonable conclusion from lack of persuasive evidence…the belief in nonexistence, however, is a fallacious conclusion following from an argument “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence” — which may not hold.

OK, OK. So, what happens when we suppose that something like the Priesthood is natural, instead of supernatural? When we suppose that things are natural, that gives us a road to a *possible* understanding that we can then embark upon. Natural things are theoretically understandable. This doesn’t mean we’ll actually understand (we could all die out before finding the proper tools), but it is theoretically understandable because we can interact with natural things (even if the interaction requires us to find an instrument for something like, say, a “spiritual” concept.)

This is, in my minds, an improvement from the supernatural. The supernatural is inaccessible. It is slippery. There is no road to it. It is mercurial. It is not understandable. So I think when we resign ourselves to saying something is supernatural, we resign ourselves to be ok with ignorance of that thing (or even claiming that we can never come to understanding).

And that is unappealing.

It seems to me, actually, rather ironically, that it is naturalism that allows for order and sense (perhaps even through determinism). But with the supernatural, you don’t have order. You have something that can change at whim and is an unrepentant outlaw.

So, sometimes, when I think about Mormonism’s God (which gets a lot of flak from non-Mormons), I think it might be a good theoretically naturalist God. He does not create ex nihilo; he organizes. He follows laws (even if they are laws within him or from him). He has progressed to his state and eternally progresses (in the same hope that we have of progressing from poor understanding of the natural world to great understanding of the natural world and finally, to control of it).

I’m not sure though. It’s all theoretical. There’s not enough persuasive reason to believe in that. Not enough reason to believe in a personal god. Not enough reason to believe in baggage around that. And so on.

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  1. You should read D.Z. Phillips, specifically his ‘Hermeneutics of Contemplation,’ ‘Death and Immortality,’ and his ‘Problem of Evil and the Problem of God.’ There are others, but they are mostly expensive library prints that are hard to find. The books above can be purchased online for not too much.

  2. I’ll look into those

  3. FireTag permalink

    I will never be satisfied with religious explanations that I can’t fit into a “natural” framework — too much scientist in my background.

    So I share your interest in the topic greatly, and agree with the importance of the difference between (1) being justified in NOT believing in the existence of something and (2) believing that something does NOT exist.

    But I’m not sure what “justification” means in this context, or what good being justified does. To use your example, people got sick or not based on whether their actions protected them from germs, not whether they believed in them.

    So could you amplify what you imply by “justification?

  4. Suppose that scientists figure out how to trigger the experience of “the Spirit” in people and figure out how to actually communicate thought and emotion in this manner? Or, perhaps, not communicate, but how to create in people the feeling of communication artificially. And then suppose they figured out how to trigger this feeling in yourself. Do you believe that this would be sufficient evidence to deny God’s existence? I don’t, but I’m curious regarding your take.

  5. re FireTag:

    Justification is admittedly a term I’m not sure if I have a handle on it. But I think it is something like “reasonable”ness…or something like the legal idea of the “reasonable person.”

    So, someone is justified in believing or not believing if, based on all evidences (whether objective or subjective), it would be reasonable (or the reasonable person) would believe or not believe. For example, let’s say we live in pre-18th century England. There are no black swans in England, and none of our friends over in Australia have found a black swan (yet). Based on this dearth of evidence, the reasonable Englishman is justified in not believing in black swans (even though, there in fact are black swans). When John Latham comes around in 1790 to discover black swans and presents the evidence (which is persuasive), then one who sees that persuasive evidence is justified in believing in swans.

    However, someone who says, “there are no black swans,” is incorrect. He is making a fallacious argument (I don’t see any black swans and I’ve never heard of them, and so they don’t exist). (There actually is a funny twist to this of how you could make a negative argument…show that it is logically impossible. For example, in words where swan means “white bird”, well, a black swan is awkward. [Language is awkward and not “perfect” though].

    In these cases, it’s not really about the reality of the situation (e.g., black swans do exist. This is a fact), but about whether an individual is justified (that is, is it reasonable) for one to lack belief (or to have belief).

  6. re John C:

    No, John. Not necessarily at all. This is, after all, rather vague. I could think of several scenarios and then come with different conclusions for them. I think this is an awkward formulation though.

    A) It *could* be sufficient evidence to *prove God exists*. What better way to validate God than to figure out the way he operates? (I say you have phrased something awkwardly because at first read-through, this is what your scenario sounds like, “Say scientists have figured out how to repeatedly and reliably contact THE SPIRIT — YOU KNOW, PART OF THE GODHEAD…would this be sufficient evidence to DENY God?” And that just doesn’t make sense…)

    B) It *could* be sufficient evidence to show that religious understanding of a possible God was incorrect. (E.g., I guess you MEANT your scenario to be analogous to science discovering how lightning works — in which people say, “Well, I guess Zeus doesn’t cause it.” [even this is not quite a sound leap. After all, Zeus could’ve made the weather systems])

    C) It *could* be sufficient evidence to justify (oh, there’s that “justification” again) *disbelief* in God’s existence. (Playing around tricky with words. I’m hoping that by “deny” you meant something like “I believe God does not exist”…whereas with “disbelieve,” I mean something like, “I do not believe God exists”) What I mean with this scenario is that depending on what method the “Spirit” was engineered to be felt in, this might not require a belief in God. So it would not be necessary to believe in God for the Spirit, and so that may not be persuasive to some, so they might not believe. (saying, “God does not exist,” based on this is a fallacious step further).

    yeah, I think I’ll just stick with those three scenarios.

    For example, imagine that science could trigger the experience of “The Spirit” empirically, repeatably, and reliably, but part of the variables necessary to trigger such experience was belief in God. This would say a whole different thing (probably closer to A, but not necessarily A) than if the variable necessary to trigger such experience did not require belief in God.

    The problem is that even “belief in” God would be one step removed from God itself…so it could be something about that “belief” that triggers the experience…and that God isn’t necessary for it (if he exists or if he doesn’t).

    Science could only pinpoint anything directly on or against God if God himself were something we could pinpoint…and I think this requires naturalism. As long as anything is supernatural, it’s completely hands-off.

    But wouldn’t it be interesting if we found a way to feel the spirit and “telepathically” or “empathically” communicate and all the things you said…and we found some kind of evidence that, like a faster-than-light postal service, the empathic energies routed to a planet out in the middle of space (or wherever) and then routed back to the recipient? Or some other sign of centralization?

    This is really crazy stuff, of course. But these are the kinds of things to possibly be thinking about.

  7. Okay, then we are in agreement about the implications. Sorry about the awkward wording.

    And yes, this is what I mean by the supernatural/natural divide. All of those responses are legitimate responses. We are going to choose the one that best fits our narrative of how existence operates and run with it.

    Finally, just say it with me: Kolob 😉

  8. FireTag permalink

    I think if we could reliably trigger the experience, it would be strong evidence that we evolved or, at least are evolving, that capability because it’s good for survival purposes. That would be consistent with the presence of God, but would not require such existence.

    The analogy would be with the evolutionary development of eyes. They start out as pretty unreliable photoreceptors in which we don’t even know that receiving information was the primary purpose. If they provide fitness for any reason, they persist and improve.

    Eventually eyes will actually become useful for information gathering IF there is something out there generating information (even if passively).

    I have no time to go dig this out of my files and check my memory, but I remember reading a summary of research suggesting that the portions of the brain involved in thinking about God are the same ones that are involved in inferring conscious intents in others and in pattern recognition.

    I think the researchers were inferring that spiritual beliefs are very refined forms of mental processes that evolved out of the very useful ability to infer the presense of a predator from simultaneous movement of three spots or something. Even if the mental process produces a lot of false positives, it still can improve overall fitness.

    Doesn’t answer whether there is really something in reality sending out spiritual information, but it would make the process of receiving that information fully natural and slowly getting better.

  9. re John C:

    But then here’s the thing. You’ve got to *find* Kolob first before believing in it. (or, at the very least, WANT to find it). But yeah, that’s the kind of thing people might try to investigate…

    re FireTag:

    I like what you had said with the first paragraph. This is always the problem with such a search. As long as something can be “consistent with the purposes of God, but not require such existence,” that means we are at least one stage away from God, so we can’t really say anything about him. For example, it could be God -> evolution -> Us or it could be ??? -> evolution -> us.

    The problem is in many believers who do not recognize evolution. I mean, of course there are going to be atheists who will point out, “Well evolution does not require such existence,” but if every theist believed in evolution, we wouldn’t have NEARLY as much backlash.

  10. FireTag permalink

    Yes, and eyes do eventually get good enough that you don’t doubt that information is coming in and can start to make progress in figuring our the nature of what’s delivering that info.

    There’s still more stuff coming down the scientific pipeline after evolution passes out of controversy to keep the backlash fully in play. We won’t be bored.

  11. This was pretty much James Talmage’s view. He felt that what we call “miracles” are actually simply manifestations of a higher rational principle at work.

    So when Christ turned water into whine, it wasn’t “magic.” It was simply God invoking a “higher” scientific principle to effect a change in the liquid.

    So, I guess you could say that Talmage would agree with you that Priesthood power should be ultimately observable in an empirical sense. We just haven’t gotten there yet – and may be mortally incapable of getting there – but still…

  12. Seth, my father had mentioned that to me once ago, and that’s kinda what got me thinking.

    I guess I’m still doubtful. Because while someone like my father would say, “stick with the church, and it’ll lead to this amazing hyperscience eventually,” I think something like, “What if I stick with the science, and see if it leads to these kinds of religious things.”

  13. Do a google search for “new god argument”.

  14. I have read the New God Argument before, and it’s pretty neat to play with (especially in light of the fact that certain ideas, like that old couplet “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become” are being abandoned by general authorities and prophets in high-publicity interviews).

    The main problem I can see though is that it’s very theoretical. So, from a logical standpoint, it seems valid, but are the various premises sound? Are the various trusts and the faith point sound? We don’t really know. It seems preferable to accept certain points (e.g., it’s probable that we will be able to become advanced, and so that it’s probable that there are advanced civilizations), but preference doesn’t necessarily make things so.

    But I think that’s already recognized, so so much for that.

    Really, this only pushes things back…so, if we’re a simulation of a simulation (…) of a simulation…someone has to be the original. And this original would…not? have a god?

    So the question is is it more reasonable to accept the nest of simulations (and then, how to decide how many?) or that we are the *start* of the simulations?

  15. Based on the math, we almost certainly are not the first. Probably, we are either only the most recent in an indefinite chain, or we’ll never do it. So perhaps the more interesting question is: SHOULD we posit god, despite ontological arguments for or against? Once we understand the math, what are the practical ramifications, psychologically and sociologically, of positing God? Whether we posit or not, and HOW we posit (for example, whether to extremes of complacency or hopelessness), our choice reinforces various probabilities.

  16. what?

    Based on the math?

    And how, based on the math, are you going to say we are (probably) the most recent in an indefinite chain?

    We have to stop right there before getting any further about positing god or not.

    …so I guess I would have to amend to say that it’s not even logically valid anymore…because there are plenty of false tri/dichotomies.

  17. Sure. Nick Bostrom provides an introduction to the math for the simulation argument here:

    Subsequently, because the argument (and its math) can be generalized to any feasible mechanism of creation, we can apply it to the new god argument.

  18. . . . just noticed your post changed, so I’ll add a couple remarks. First, the distinction between “indefinite” and “infinite” is important; the former presents problems that the latter does not necessarily (although the latter does not preclude the former). Second, I haven’t identified any logical problems with the argument; to what false dichotomies are you referring?

  19. Oops. My first remark is backwards. Here it is corrected:

    First, the distinction between “indefinite” and “infinite” is important; the LATTER presents problems that the FORMER does not necessarily (although the FORMER does not preclude the LATTER).

  20. From looking over Bostrom’s simulation argument, that’s what made me realize that false trichotomy. But I think I may have misclassified things

    either 1) The human species (us) is very likely to go extinct before (blah blah blah)


    2) any posthuman civilization (ambiguation) is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of computer simulations (blah blah blah)


    3) we (us) are almost certainly living in a simulation.

    At first, it seems like these are the three options that we have. But then, the problem lies in where Bostrom (and, in turn, you guys with the NGA) are being ambiguous and when you’re being specific. But 3 realistically should be something like “any posthuman civilization is almost certainly likely to run a significant number of simulations” (in the same vein as 2).

    AT FIRST, I thought: it does not necessarily follow (even if it is possible) that humans (that is, us) are “almost certainly” simulated.

    BUT THEN, I realized what Bostrom was trying to say relating to the sheer amount of simulated humans “outnumbering” genuine humans. However, there was still something amiss.

    And I think people who are way better at these kinds of things than I am have already caught on it: it relates to the Self-Indication Assumption that Bostrom has also presented in the past [and warned people to be wary of] (and which he uses in the Simulation Argument). Here is a PDF:

  21. I’ll check it out.

  22. The way Ken Wilber describes it in his writings is that there is a philosophical war going on between the Ascenders and the Descenders. Your writings remind me of the Descender side – that there is nothing higher or more transcendent than the material world. The ascenders on the other hand believe that there is plenty of evidence of a transcendent nature. That there is a quantity in the universe which is not knowable by our tools of measurement at their current level of development. In essence one could say that nothing exists unless it can be measured, but once they can be measured then they become obvious. Such as microorganisms. It is my understanding too, that atoms have yet to be seen directly – that their existence is inferred. That they can be measured on some level is a given, but that is because there exists more sophisticated measuring tools than the human eye.

  23. FireTag permalink

    LOL at myself. I now know why I was cut out to be a physicist and not a philosopher.

    I didn’t get past the intro to the SIA paper before I saw the Lloyd citation (5) and said to myself, “Isn’t this the same guy that said later that the universe is already being simulated (by nature, not advanced humans) that it can’t perform any more ops without collapsing into a black hole?”

    (Lloyd, Seth, and Ng, Y. Jack; “Black Hole Computers”. Scientific American November 2004, page 53.)

    Thereafter I was so bothered by the doubts about the assumptions of sufficient computing power for advanced humans to run sufficiently detailed sims that we wouldn’t have already detected the simulation that I had no hope of following the philosophical argument — if I ever could have done so.

    Well, another example of needing different perspectives to learn about the nature of reality.

    I’m glad I checked out this site. Maybe one of you can explain the philosophy problem to me slowly, so I can tell which parts are rhetorical and which are real arguments by the paper’s author.

  24. re Mike:

    I’d probably have to adjust a few things…for example, you mentioned “nothing more transcendent than the material world.” I’m not necessarily describing a purely materialistic environment (although perhaps I default to one). I’m talking instead about natural vs. supernatural and then insisting upon the natural.

    So, the line, “In essence one could say that nothing exists…” should probably be something like, “In essence one could say we have no reason to believe that anything exists…”

    Again, there is a world of difference here. Saying something does not exist or saying that nothing exists (save measurement) is clearly fallacious. It’s like saying that black swans “didn’t exist” until people sailed down to Australia and saw them in the wild. This is clearly silly even to the staunchest naturalist or materialist.

    However, what is reasonable to say is that people didn’t have reason to believe that black swans existed until discovered.

    So as per measurement…if something cannot be measured, why should we believe in it, when it does not affect us in any noticeable way (note: if it did affect us in any noticeable way, it would be measurable, given the right tools [which may not be CURRENTLY available, but still.]

    The supernatural (at least, as most people define it…although such definitions are often intensely slippery and change at a whim) 1) either categorically defies measurement or 2) seem not to have any justification for being “different” than natural. If people insist on doing the first, then my question is, why bother with the supernatural? And if people admit to 2, then I think they should be honest enough and admit that what they call supernatural ACTUALLY means “natural phenomena as of yet unexplained” and then have the humility to put up (evidence, research, etc.,) or shut up (e.g., be less audacious in insisting grand truth or whatever in the face of weak justification).

    For example, I would say that if there is “evidence” of the transcendent world, then this is necessarily an admission that the “transcendent world” is natural, not supernatural.

  25. re FireTag:

    Every so often I’ll get a painful reminder of why I’m not a philosophy major or a career philosopher and I agree that this is one of those times.

    um…to start out…The simulation argument isn’t an argument that we actually *are* in a simulation. (And, by association, the New God Argument isn’t an argument actually *for* the real existence of a god, if I understand it correctly…) Rather, both are kinds of “what ifs” or justifications for *trusting* these things. E.g., *if* we are optimistic and believe we won’t blow ourselves up or choose not to simulate things when we have the technology, etc., then it follows mathematically that we are *more likely* to be a simulation (e.g., the product of a universe created by an advanced civilization that might appear to us to have the qualities we assign to God — although Bostrom doesn’t make it theistic at all, just using “post-human civilizations).

    So, basically, Bostrom’s real argument is Either 1) we most likely will kill ourselves D: or 2) it is likely that advanced civs do not create several simulations or 3) we are most likely a civilization. You can make these equally probable (e.g., it’s just as likely that we probably will kill ourselves *as* the probability we are simulated) or you can say certain of these are more probable than the others. If you can trust that we won’t screw things up, then you can mathematically (this is all rhetorical and theoretical, though) you can also trust that there probably is something above us.

    The SIA paper points out that embedded in this rhetoric is a nasty way of thinking — that is, that it’s better to trust things with “more” than things with “less.” Because Bostrom wants us to say in option 3 that since there are (probably) vastly more simulated humans than real humans, then we should (probably) consider ourselves to be a simulated human, rather than one of the originals.

  26. Guess I’ll see you there.

  27. FireTag permalink


    There is something called the Boltzman Brain paradox in physics: the most common observer should be a quantum fluctuation of a conscious brain out of nothing under some quantum theories. It then plays into showing limits on assumptions we make about various cosmological models.

    The flaw in that paradox is forgetting the ability of far lesser fluctuations to evolve into conscious brains, therefore outnumbering the Boltzman brains.

    I think there is a similar omission in the New Gods Argument. We wouldn’t assume that single-celled organisms will continue to improve indefinitely without new principles for organizing the basis of life emerging (i.e., multicellular organisms).

    One possibility is the notion that we aren’t very high on the food chain of what’s being created by evolution. Maybe we’re more akin to the “sparrow that shall not fall” without God noticing when we are compared to the “Kingdom of God” or whatever the equivalent shorn of the religious connotations would be.

    I doubt that is the only possibility. I suspect reality is filled with life everywhere, everywhen, and everyhow. It’s more complex that way, and I suspect reality “likes” complexity.

  28. Jackson permalink

    Excellent article. Can’t wait to read much more about this subject.

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