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Can an atheist believe in ghosts?

June 5, 2010

Normally, I don’t argue on twitter. I think twitter arguments are only a few steps up above youtube arguments…not to insult my twitter friends, but there ARE a lot of dumb twitter people. (In contrast, I am convinced that the vast vast majority of youtube commenters are dumb. I really really really feel for my friends who maintain youtube channels and have to deal with fans [and enemies]).

But also, twitter is like…140 characters or less. Not so great for argument.

But anyway, what I noticed was that my twitter feed was blowing up with tweets from @heidiraff, whom I think is a remarkably compassionate person whose compassion is frequently tested in unreasonable and uncompassionate situations (namely: arguing with trifling people on twitter or elsewhere.) Her blog actually recounts some of these encounters in a more coherent format that the chaos of twitter.

So, I decided to jump into the conversation.

Heidi could not understand what she felt was the immensely contradiction of an atheist who could believe in ghosts. Even further, she was flabbergasted by the idea that other atheists on twitter were defending the possibility of an atheist that believes in ghosts!

My position upon jumping in the fray was that an atheist, of course, can believe in ghosts. That is because atheism, purely in simply, only involves lacking belief in deities. And that’s it. Since there is nothing mutually exclusive about not believing in deities while believing in ghosts, one *could* conceivably do both.

This wasn’t very satisfactory.

Heidi pointed out how all the atheists she had talked with rejected god for lack of proof. So how could an atheist demand proof for god but still believe in ghosts?

The point that the atheist “side” stressed was that there was a misunderstanding of terms. There are many reasons why people do not believe in atheism. Many atheists adopt particular understanding of evidence and knowledge. They are rationalist. Or they are skeptic. Or they adopt scientific thinking. And it is from these things that they doubt certain things, like gods.

However, atheism does not require or imply or necessitate these modes of thought. So while many atheists would claim to be rationalist or skeptical (maybe even every atheist that Heidi met on Twitter), these things are not implied or required by atheism. Because they are not, it is possible to conceive an irrational atheist, an unskeptical atheist, a nonscientific atheist, and so on. Many atheists may chafe at these people, but it wouldn’t be because of atheism. It would be because of the rationalist or skeptical or scientific approach that they take.

This is an important point, I think, because atheists are not to be pidgeonholed together. The only thing atheists must share in common is a lack of belief in deity. From there, nothing else — approaches to knowledge, approaches to ethics or morality, views on life and the world — must be shared or similar. If there are shared beliefs elsewhere, this is due to some other cause. (E.g., our current political or social climate may lead many atheists to have similar outlooks.)

Atheism is a set. It is a umbrella. It is the set or umbrella of all philosophies, worldviews, beliefs that do not involve deities.

I think the same is true of theism. Theism is a set. It is an umbrella. But it is the set or umbrella of philosophies, worldviews, and beliefs that do involve deities.

The question, “Can an atheist believe in ghosts?” then is similar to the question “Can a theist believe in Shiva?” Just because many theists happen to be Christian (and Christians do not believe in Shiva) doesn’t mean that theism is mutually exclusive with a belief in Shiva. Many Christians would probably chafe at a theist that believes in Shiva, but that is because of their Christianity, not because of their theism.

The issue is that on a public basis, we usually don’t deal with the larger set for one side. We usually don’t deal with “theism,” as we do with “atheism.” We deal with “Christianity” (and more importantly, denominations of Christianity), “Islam” (and denominations thereof), and so on. But because of this, we often confuse the comparison. Atheism (the umbrella, larger set) is not directly comparable to, say, evangelical Protestant Christianity (a particular subset of theism). That many atheists may share qualities (new atheism often relies on specific ideas about the value of rationality, of scientific evidence, and so on) doesn’t mean these ideas are infused with atheism itself. Just like the fact that many theists are Christian does not mean that theism implies Christianity itself.

If the discussion weren’t on twitter, I would probably make a few different points. Heidi’s argument was something like, “Well, all the atheists I’ve met demand proof of God.” With only 140 characters per tweet, I didn’t want to go into every counter argument, so pointing out that the “demand proof” is more a characteristic of the skeptic subset rather than the atheist superset was all I had time for…but other points *I* would probably have made, taking a more subjective approach, are:

1) “Proof,” in my mind, often ends up being more like “personally persuasive evidence.” If I talk about proof, I’m talking about something that is personally convincing to me. Since what can persuade someone can differ, we need not even assume that demanding proof is a skeptical or rationalist argument. “Proof” need not be the scientifically verifiable kind; it need not be “objective”; if one is personally persuaded by other kinds.

2) Going off of point 1, if people believe what they are personally persuaded to believe, then it is easy to see how one could be “personally persuaded” to believe in one concept (say, ghosts), but not another (say, deities), while to another party, both seem equally unproven or to yet another, one is proven and one is baseless.

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  1. I think rationalism is, for most people on the planet, largely an illusion. The vast majority of beliefs and decisions in humanity are made emotionally and intuitively. Often rational grounding of those decisions IS postulated by the decision-maker as well. But I think this is usually an ad hoc sort of afterthought. The real decision was made intuitively, and afterward, we simply seek for rational argument to ground and buttress a conclusion we made on entirely different grounds.

    For this reason, it would not at all surprise me to find atheists to be as superstitious as anyone else.

    I think pure rationality is WAAAY overstated in American and western thought. Like sort of a smokescreen for people to deny that in reality most of their life choices are determined down at the raw blood and bones level with little “pure thought” about it. This tends to be looked down upon in certain circles, but I see no problem with it. I happen to think that the human intuition is actually more competent than the human intellect in many instances. It seems that Eastern philosophy and thought recognizes this more than Western.

  2. I’d be inclined to agree, Seth. However, for the most part, I would at least like to give people some credit for what they say they believe. Even if I strongly suspect that two people are both making decisions or determining beliefs emotionally, I think there is a qualitative difference in those who will openly perceive their decisionmaking process as being emotional, or those who will perceive — regardless of what actually is the case — that the decisionmaking process was rational.

  3. I would put it more like this –
    Input of Data into our minds accumulated over our lifetime> Decision Making (Emotional&Rational) both dependent on pre decision data)>Rationalized with more supporting data and or relying on the pre decision data.

  4. I largely disagree with Seth. While it is true that emotions are a primary driving force behind human action, decisions, and thought, there is a feedback loop between emotions/intuition and physical reality. This feedback loop is better and more disciplined in some people than in others. Just because someone uses their emotional intuition doesn’t mean that intuition wasn’t refined over years of rational and scientific observations. Nobody can be 100% unemotional; that is a silly red herring. What you can do is pay more attention to the realities around you; slowly and incrementally align your cognitive biases and emotions with what you observe; learn from the great men and women who came before; learn about logic and reasoning and where they can successfully be used. Don’t just toss them aside completely saying, “Oh it is futile! Emotions can’t be abolished!”

    There is a whole spectrum of superstition. Some people are more superstitious than others. Basing your decision on emotions has nothing to do with how superstitious you are.

    Let’s not thrust the term “rationality” into the realm of absolutes, where it was never meant to be. We can all agree that emotions are always there under the surface driving human motivation. What rationality is meant to convey is a layer of indirection between the broiling, immediate, temporary human emotions and the final act of decision; a layer that takes into account less ephemeral things like goals, objectives, physical consequences, probability, conflicting viewpoints, knowledge of one’s own biases, etc. The fact that emotions ultimately drive one’s long term goals and desire for rationality does not obviate the need for such a layer.

  5. A couple of things.

    First, I don’t have a problem with folks using intuition and emotion to guide their lives. Personally, I’m a big fan of empathy and I wish folks would focus on that one a little bit more. Perhaps we wouldn’t be hurting each other quite so much if we did. When dealing with people and other living creatures, I don’t think rationality amounts to a hill of beans without first taking into consideration the experience of being a living, feeling being.

    As for the definition of atheism, I agree completely with Andrew. The minimal requirement is that a person not believe in a god or gods. That’s it. The rest is your own personal variation.

    The thing to remember is that all movements of people eventually divide into various subgroups with differing perceptions, practices, and ideologies. These subgroups don’t always play well with each other and often want to kick one or several other groups out of the collective sandbox. Humans do the darndest things.

    As for ghosts, I have something in particular to say about the topic. My sister and her two daughters experienced a “haunting” in their house for a few years. To the best of my knowledge, they are not mentally/emotionally compromised and yet they all described unusual phenomena (voices in empty rooms, oddly malfunctioning appliances, apparitions, footsteps in empty rooms, etc.). Even their neighbors in the adjoining row-home experienced strange goings on during the same expanse of years. One of my nieces moved out of the house because the situation became so frightening for her.

    I am left to conclude that they did experience something unusual in their house. I wouldn’t conclude that there are “spirits” involved but I do wonder if there is not a class of rare phenomena that science hasn’t yet investigated and provided satisfactory explanations for. Whatever is at the root of these kinds of experiences, I’m confident that there is some explanation rooted in physical law. I simply don’t know what that explanation is.

    In my opinion, it would be close minded of me to have told my relatives (and their neighbors) that they were a bunch of deluded nutjobs in need of psychiatric help. They experienced something. I simply don’t know what that something was. This is one of those situations in life that I file in a folder that is labeled “to be evaluated when further data becomes available.”

    I remember talking about these experiences with one atheist friend and he became very upset, dismissed what I was saying, and shifted the topic. That really annoyed me. There are some atheists for whom the notion of “if I don’t have a convenient scientific explanation for something, then it simply doesn’t exist” creates a comfortable set of blinders. There are things that are unknown and as of yet, unexplained. That doesn’t mean they do not exist. It certainly doesn’t mean they are the result of magic, but it does imply that there are physical processes that we do not yet understand.

  6. Chris permalink

    Rationality is simple. Don’t assume baseless claims to be true… or claims based on bad evidence alone. However, some still debate on what is considered good evidence.

    I can relate with timberwraith’s atheist friend. I do my best to not expect other people to believe a baseless claim (or a claim based on bad evidence alone). In fact, I try not to spread baseless claims in the first place.

    • Uh… Except that three family members and some neighbors witnessing unusual phenomena isn’t baseless. I’m not claiming that the events were supernatural. That would be a baseless claim. However, to claim the very occurrence of the events themselves are baseless is stretching things a bit. That implies that my family was either deluded or lying, both of which I have problems with.

    • However, I’m aware that a lot of people, atheist or not, will dismiss this kind of story as nonsense and probably paint both me and my family as being a bit squirrely. Ah well…

    • Chris permalink

      Anecdotal evidence isn’t good (or good enough) evidence. Eye-witness evidence isn’t good (or good enough) evidence.

      40 some people witnessing the name of Mohammed on the ceiling of a Mosque isn’t good evidence as to the reality of a miracle of Allah. And so I haven’t converted to Islam because of this account.

    • Given that such phenomena (ghosts/hauntings) have been experienced in many cultures, across time, why not treat the events as something worthy of investigation?

      Folks like Richard Wiseman of The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry are doing that. Some hypothesize that these experiences could be byproducts of exposure to infrasound or magnetic fields. Experiments have been conducted that show that these factors could explain some of these experiences.

      Isn’t it useful knowledge to know that magnetic phenomena and sound waves can influence/distort human perception and emotions?

      So, why ignore the experiences of phenomena such as ghosts and hauntings when one could stand to learn more about the natural world and how humans are effected by it? That doesn’t mean embracing the notion that we are being visited by spirits, deities, little green men, or what have you. If you’re willing to look past the folk stories that surround experiences like ghosts and hauntings, there might actually be something interesting to be learned.

    • Chris permalink

      Ghosts/hauntings have been worthy of investigation and have already been thoroughly debunked. Have you seen Paranormal Activity? It’s based on a story where the guy was experiencing many strange sounds and things in his house. It turned out that his house just had a bad foundation (or something like that). But he still thought it might be a good story, so he made a movie out of it. When you dig a little deeper, usually you can find a more plausible explanation for ghosts or hauntings.

      I don’t think you should necessarily ignore bad claims, just don’t automatically assume them to be true. Generally there is a much simpler explanation (i.e. one that makes less assumptions).

  7. I know that being an atheist doesn’t automatically make you a critical thinker, and being rational-minded in one area doesn’t immunise you from being fooled in others.

    Still, I’m having a hard time defending the ghost believers. If you don’t believe in the Holy Ghost, why would you believe in the non-holy kind? If there are ghosts, what would stop you from believing in, essentially, a big spirit? I wonder if people have thought this through.

  8. little spirits don’t imply big spirits, first of all.

    little spirits don’t imply big spirits that are part of an all-knowing triad or trinity, second of all.

    You may still doubt why someone would have reason to believe in another, but it certainly does not follow that because one believes in one, one would have reason to believe in the other.

    I wonder if people think these things through. :3

  9. Ghost – I don’t see how it even ties in with Atheism ……. Ghosts = Existence of God only one of many possible explanations for the phenomenon being an Atheist only means I have ruled the God one out. I would have to do much more research to form an opinion one way or another about paranormal occurances.

  10. Great post, and I agree with you, Andrew.

    To Seth: You’re right to suspect that atheists are often as superstitious as theists. I posted a while ago at the SHAFT blog this very point.

    • Jon
      I think his comment from that blog offers a better perspective:

      “Wait a minute, now. If we can say that “traditional Christian religion” requires believing in a supernatural being, doesn’t the whole lot of them believe in the paranormal? The only reason Christianity has avoided being labeled “superstition” is because of its social and political might. Joining the religious club might suppress beliefs about other paranormal claims, but the statistics above show the majority of atheists don’t believe in the paranormal. I think 21% compares pretty well with 100%”

  11. Chris permalink

    I can understand why people balk at the idea of a superstitious atheist. History/society has setup atheism as the ultimate flavor of skepticism. It’s not that big of a deal to not believe in fairies… but to not believe in a God is blasphemous (generally).

    And so naturally some atheists are born into family environments where religion/God is absent. BUT also the teaching of critical thinking and the method of skepticism may not be taught that much (at home or in public schools). So since atheism/theism is a popular topic, naturally this atheist will hear some random arguments as to why he should or shouldn’t believe. So he may develop some reasoning in this regard… but in general may still lack a good understanding of skepticism.

    Humans have evolved to be story-believers and superstitious. So it’s completely understandable that this type of atheist may believe in ghosts.

    In my experience, as I learned skepticism, I applied it selectively to the superstitions that didn’t really conflict with my religious views. I disbelieved in ghosts before I disbelieved in holy ghosts.

  12. I think the point is that whenever we talk about the incredulity of a superstitious atheist, it is because we bring something else into the table — skepticism for example. But even though skepticism may be a prime reason why many atheists do not believe in gods, skepticism nevertheless is distinct from atheism.

  13. Chris permalink

    I think atheism is just a subset of skepticism. In theory, we should work through the process of the method of skepticism before we come to the conclusion of disbelief. But in reality, many times a non-believer becomes such because of the environment he/she grew up in. A true skeptic actually uses the method of skepticism.

  14. I guess I’d have to disagree there. That may capture a particular context of atheism nowadays, but I think atheism in general must be divorced from any particular context.

  15. How should one become an atheist? Isn’t it through the method of skepticism? I think the word atheism has become something more than it really is to many people (usually theists). Atheism a convenient way to say that a person is a skeptic specifically in regards to the God hypothesis. Atheism is just a flavor of skepticism. You apply the method of skepticism to a specific claim – the God hypothesis.

  16. “How should one become an atheist?”

    This is such a silly question. It depends on context. Living in the modern, western world, we have a particular context…and yes, it is heavily biased/favorable to skepticism. But atheism is not constrained or confined to such a context.

  17. Chris permalink

    When I said ‘should’ I mean… what is the rational way of becoming a non-believer? I understand people can be atheists without using the method of skepticism. But I don’t think that’s completely rational to do so. True (rational) atheism is constrained by skepticism.

  18. But that’s the thing. You have to INTRODUCE something else. “What is the rational way of becoming a non-believer. Obviously, you live in an era that prizes rationality. It inundates your worldview and viewpoint.

    My point is that, when we are talking about nonbelief, at the most basic level it does not have such assumptions, presuppositions, or context.

    To speak of “true” atheism as being “rational” atheism or atheism “constrained by skepticism” only shows your blindness to your bias.

    To summarize my point: atheism is merely one thing. The non-belief in deities. THAT IS IT. No more, no less. “True atheism” is only lacking belief in deities.

    Everyone else — everything else — is an addition, a supplementation, a context, a particularity, whatever else. We may find these additions invaluable. If we are *rationalists*, then we may find a rationalist basis for atheism coherent and consistent with the values we hold as *rationalists*. But that is a separate issue from atheism

  19. Chris permalink

    I think I tend to simplify my wording. I understand that atheism is just one thing – the non-belief in deities. However, I’m saying that it’s the method of atheism that is just a flavor of skepticism. (And I’m defining skepticism as a method – as used by Thomas E. Kida in his 6 mistakes book). I suppose I was using the word ‘atheism’ as a process or method…. sorry about the confusion.

  20. OK, I read through some of your comments again, and I can see what you were getting at. I think I also perceive a lot of extra baggage around the term “skepticism” so that triggered some warning sirens for me.

  21. Chris permalink

    Maybe this is for another blog post…

    So I think when people say ‘atheism is just another religion’ they probably mean something like ‘the method by which you arrive at atheism contains assumptions and beliefs that are no more valid than assuming or believing that [insert supernatural claim] is true.’

    Or maybe they don’t mean that… I don’t know. What I try to emphasize is the method by which somebody comes to the conclusion of ‘atheism’ is scientific and does not contain (or should not contain) irrational assumptions. It’s too bad that we have a word like ‘atheism’, in my opinion. It sounds too much like a religion or philosophy.

  22. I would imagine that is what is meant. (But I may or may not take you up on writing a new post for it.)

    I can see the counterarguments. People want to argue that assumptions like skepticism are “rational,” and that because they are “rational,” they are of a different category (a superior category) than that of religious assumptions.

    which is part of the issue. “Rationality” would be part of the religion, so to speak.

  23. Brian permalink

    Interestingly enough, I recently encountered an atheist that believes in supernatural phenomena, and I did a Google search to see if such a thing is common only to have this page as the first hit. Quite simply, no, it is metaphysically IMPOSSIBLE for an atheist to have a belief in the supernatural. The supernatural is simply incompatible with atheism and its necessary implications.

  24. Brian,

    thanks for the comment.

    However, no, there is nothing metaphysically impossible with the following two statements: “I do not believe in deities” and “I believe in some other supernatural being.”

    The issue is that you think there is any “necessary implication” to atheism other than disbelief in gods. There isn’t.

    It is true that most atheists happen to be naturalists as well, and the supernatural is indeed incompatible with naturalism, but atheism is not naturalism, and atheism does not necessitate naturalism (even if supernaturalist atheists seem a bit nonstandard).

  25. Brian permalink

    I need you to explain to me how atheism does not necessitate naturalism a metaphysical implication.

  26. Brian,

    Atheism is merely and simply the lack of belief in gods. There is nothing more implied or necessitated by atheism. From finding out one is an atheist, one has no idea of *why* someone is an atheist, what kind of atheist they are, what morality they have, what epistemological system they hold to, etc., etc., One only knows that, for whatever belief system they have, gods do not play a role because gods are not assumed to exist.

    Since one can disbelieve in gods for any number of reasons, and not just because they have a naturalist ontology or epistemology, one can disbelieve in gods while believing in some other supernatural being. It isn’t inconsistent with atheism because atheism never told you how some became atheist or what process they use to identify things in the world.

  27. Brian permalink

    The problem I have with the a “supernaturalist atheist” is that an atheist necessarily has to believe in a universe that is a closed, natural system. This, to me, is a metaphysical consequence of atheism, and this is simply incompatible with the supernatural. Sure, an atheist can believe in supernatural phenomena, but then I can swoop in and show it to be metaphysically inconsistent.

  28. Brian,

    what about “not believing in god” requires someone to believe in a universe that is a closed, natural system?

    What about “not believing in god” makes naturalism a metaphysical consequence of atheism.

    It seems to me that you are defining an atheist not as someone who does not believe in god, but as someone who does not believe in god because s/he is a naturalist.

    I would say that last part is implied nowhere in the word atheism.

  29. Brian permalink

    Unless you can show me otherwise, I think that atheism necessarily entail metaphysical naturalism. An atheistic universe is a closed, natural system, which rules out the possibility of the supernatural.

  30. Brian permalink

    Maybe I should explain a bit more. Atheism denies/rejects/disbelieves/whatever in gods, which includes a creator god, which means an atheistic universe is a closed, natural system by virtue of the fact that it does not require a supernatural explanation. Now, in this hypothetical universe, how can the supernatural emerge? I would think the words “closed” and “natural” would rule that possibility out.

  31. Brian,

    Welcome back! Responding to second message first.

    Atheism denies/rejects/disbelieves/whatever in gods, which includes a creator godfull stop!

    Nothing you stated after that is necessitated or implied by atheism alone. Nothing about “denying, rejecting, disbelieving, or whatever-[ing]” in gods “means” that an atheistic universe is a “closed, natural system by virtue of the fact that it does not require supernatural explanation.” The only thing that atheism necessitates or implies is the non requirement of a god. Since god is not the only supernatural explanation, and god is not necessary for other supernatural explanations, you can’t even properly say that the atheistic universe is a closed natural system or that it does not require supernatural explanation. It is entirely consistent “The universe does not require god” and “the universe requires a supernatural explanation to describe x part of it.” It’s just that to be an atheistic statement, that supernatural explanation simply could not be god.

    1) An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in god.
    2a) A ghost is not god, and
    2b) does not require god to hypothetically exist.
    3) Therefore, an atheist can believe in a ghost.

    In your question, are you saying that the supernatural cannot exist without god first? Are you taking aim at 2b premise? I think some kind of spiritualist nontheist would disagree. We can clearly conceptualize of a universe of supernatural things that do not require a deity to precede them.

    I think your question begs the question. You are assuming a “closed, natural system.” But we haven’t accepted that as a premise. We have only accepted “nonbelief in deity” as a premise. UNLESS we accept naturalism as a premise (which would be begging the question), we don’t have to assume a closed, natural system. As a result, there is no problem in asserting that some aspects of the universe are supernatural. As long as we don’t assert that there is an aspect of the universe that can be labeled “God,” we are still atheistic.

    Responding to your previous comment:

    Again, the sense I get throughout is that you assume that part of the definition of atheism includes methodological naturalism. As a result, you are begging your question. “How can naturalism not be naturalistic?” “How can a closed, naturalistic system not be naturalistic?” All I can do is continue to point out that there is nothing in the definition of atheism per se that includes that naturalism.

    I will reiterate: I am not saying that most atheists aren’t also naturalists. I think that especially in this day and age, thanks to the lasting impact of the Enlightenment on thinking, many atheists are naturalists; in fact, many atheists may be atheists *because* they are naturalists…but nevertheless, their naturalism is distinct from their atheism. And we can easily imagine someone who is an atheist for reasons other than naturalism. People can disbelieve in gods for many other reasons than “because gods are supernatural, and the supernatural don’t exist.”

  32. Brian permalink

    “All I can do is continue to point out that there is nothing in the definition of atheism per se that includes that naturalism.”

    I guess I just don’t buy/see it. To me, the question of the possibility of the supernatural is tied up very intimately with a supernatural Creator. You’re saying that atheism allows for a supernatural Creator, but not necessarily a deity? If this the case, I further don’t buy/see it.

  33. Brian permalink

    Before you respond to the above, let me have you answer this simple question:

    Metaphysically, is it possible for the supernatural to emerge from a closed, natural universe?

  34. Answering second comment first: if such a thing happened, then we wouldn’t have much of a closed, natural universe anymore. That being said, such an event could happen (because the supernatural would be *above* the naturalistic constraints) — it would just mean we would have to adjust the claim of a closed, natural universe. My point here is similar to one I’ve been making: you’re assuming the closed, natural universe first, when that could have been a misunderstanding in the first place.

    OK, to previous comment: If you believe that the possibility of the supernatural is tied up with a supernatural creator deity, then I can see your point that the rejection of said deity is a rejection of the possibility of the supernatural.

    But I just think you’d have problems with more people than atheists with that assertion. For example, there are instances where people believe even in deities, but NOT creator deities: e.g., certain sects of buddhism. In these cases, the possibility of the supernatural is not tied with a supernatural *creator*. But even beyond that, animism in general. No creator deity (or deities in general), but definitely supernatural spirits.

    I guess the biggest elephant in the room is this: the overlap in definitions between “supernatural” and “paranormal.” For example, what if an individual believes in something like ghosts under the assumption that they are a completely natural phenomenon in the world whose explanation we have yet to find?

  35. Brian permalink

    Ok, so we agree that the possibility of the supernatural is metaphysically inconsistent with a closed, natural universe. Where we disagree, however, is if a closed, natural universe is a necessary implication of atheism. Unless you can convince me otherwise, I think it is.

    Honestly, I really don’t know if there is that much of a distinction between paranormal and supernatural – I tend to use them as synonyms, but I may be wrong.

  36. Where we disagree, however, is if a closed, natural universe is a necessary implication of atheism.

    if you believe that absence of creator deities negates the possibility for other supernatural phenomenon (which you have stated), then I am OK with this disagreement.

    I would just continue to state the common sensical point that it is easy to conceive of someone saying, “I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in x.” where x is some other supernatural phenomenon. Because tons of people *do* actually say things like this. We can’t assume the reason why someone doesn’t believe in god, so as a result, we can’t apply those assumed reasons to their beliefs in other things.

    Re: paranormal and supernatural: to my understanding, the paranormal are things that are asserted to be natural, but which currently lack natural explanation. E.g., a believer in ghosts might say, “Ghosts are natural; we just haven’t advanced enough in science to detect them in the way that you would like.”

    In this case, we could have a closed, natural system full of ghosts, leprechauns, loch ness monsters, and all manner of other things…because these things wouldn’t be assumed to be intrusions of the supernatural into a natural system, but rather unexplained parts of the natural system.

  37. Brian permalink

    I believe that the absence of “creator deities” implies that the universe has a natural explanation for itself; it is self-contained; it is closed and natural. Accordingly, this leaves no room for the supernatural. That’s just the metaphysics as far as I understand.

    Now, of course people say “I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in x,” and they do all the time. This is clumsy of me to say, but I remember reading a study which showed that the majority of atheists *do* believe in paranormal/supernatural phenomena. My point is that, given the above argument, I think this belief is inconsistent with their atheism – I give a possible exception to paranormal phenomena.

  38. Except as mentioned before, the universe having a natural explanation for itself doesn’t necessarily it is closed and natural.

    But if it is closed and natural, sure, by definition that would leave no room for the supernatural. But the people who assume the universe is closed and natural are called naturalists, not atheists.

    To the extent that a naturalist believes in the paranormal (perhaps because he or she is not a skeptic), they could be consistent so far as they believed the paranormal were natural phenomena as yet unexplained.

    This actually leads to cooler possibilities. For example: a naturalistic theist. Someone who believes in God as a natural phenomenon (but whose nature is so advanced that we haven’t learned it yet.)

  39. Brian permalink

    “Except as mentioned before, the universe having a natural explanation for itself doesn’t necessarily it is closed and natural.”

    Yeah, this is the part I don’t get.

  40. It gets back to your question from before: can the supernatural arise from a closed, natural system? If they do, then we were incorrect in describing the system as closed.

    There is no reason why a universe with a natural explanation for itself couldn’t yet be open to supernatural phenomenon. Because the supernatural phenomenon, by definition, would not be contingent on the nature of the universe, we can’t say “well, a natural universe couldn’t lead to the supernatural”…because that is the wrong kind of orientation in the first place. The supernatural doesn’t care about the existing order of nature..that’s why it is called supernatural.

    You assume “natural explanation = closed, natural.” I’m saying this isn’t warranted unless you are a naturalist…but if we’re debating whether atheists could be supernaturalists, that is question begging.

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