Supernatural Minds

In a recent post, the Christian apologist and philosopher Victor Reppert presents the view that things are ‘supernatural’ if there are mental properties “on the ground floor” of existence, at the most basic level of existence and explanation. This view was linked to sympathetically in a post by the naturalist Robert Oerter [1], and has also been championed by the naturalist philosopher and historian Richard Carrier (e.g. here), among others. Let’s call this the “Fundamental Materialism” thesis – it posits that naturalism maintains that at bottom, there is only inanimate matter.

I don’t understand why naturalists – those who reject the supernatural – take this position. I think it’s mistaken on several levels.

Perhaps most importantly, the fundamental materialism thesis doesn’t understand what naturalism is. If there is a slogan for naturalism, it is “everything is the same”. When lightning is understood to be just another instance of electrical discharge, just like numerous other phenomena all around us – then it becomes natural. When lightning is unlike other things, unlike the normal course of nature – when, for example, it is a bolt thrown by an angry Zeus – it is then that lightning is supernatural.

Given this understanding of ‘natural’ – what is the place of the mental in the universe? There are two options. One is to extend the uniformity that is at the core of naturalism to the mental domain, and maintain that “everything is the same” also in the sense that everything is mental. On this view every thing – every fundamental particle – has some mental content, such as some consciousness; although not every complex thing has a full mind, with unity, will, purpose, or so on. This position is known as Panpsychism.

The other option is to maintain that “everything is the same” in the sense that mental properties emerge from certain configurations of regular, non-mental matter, much like ‘pressure’ is only emerges when there are lots of atoms impinging on a surface. This view is known as emergence.

Personally, I think emergence makes no sense (due to what David Chalmers called the Hard Problem of Consciousness, see e.g. here), so I’m a panpsychist [2]. But the important point is that both views are forms of naturalism! In both cases reality is uniform. There is no special pleading, no ‘thinking matter’ set apart from ‘extended matter’ (as in Cartesian dualism), no ‘souls’ set apart from ‘matter’, no violations of the laws of physics – there is just nature. So naturalism may include mental stuff at the bottom (panpsyhcism), or not (emergence) – it doesn’t matter.

Now Victor Reppert raises three conditions on what would constitute a naturalistic world-view, and I think the first one exemplifies a second major point of confusion: the erroneous belief that ascribing mental properties to things means they can step outside the laws of physics. He writes

First, the “basic level” must be mechanistic, and by that I mean that it is free of purpose, free of intentionality, free of normativity, and free of subjectivity. It is not implied here that a naturalistic world must be deterministic. However, whatever is not deterministic in such a world is brute chance and nothing more.

Notice the implicit assumption here, that mental causation is incompatible with mechanistic causation. If an agent acts with purpose, then his actions are not caused by (say) quantum mechanics. Reppert limits the condition to the basic level only, but the point stands – an electron cannot have some subjective consciousness (‘subjectivity’) and at the same time follow quantum mechanics.

But this is the very thesis that naturalist theories of mind maintain – that an agent acts in a mechanistic way, yet at the same time in a purposeful way. So the naturalist rejects the implicit assumption – the fact that the physical stuff moves in mechanistic ways does not imply it doesn’t have mental content, and having mental content doesn’t imply freedom from physics.

Reppert’s assumption that what is mental is not mechanistic is understandable in a theist – this metaphysical intuition is what allows them to hold at the same time that God is a mind and that god is not physical.

But I cannot understand how naturalists fall to this trap. They too often seem to think that putting in mental stuff at the bottom level would invalidate physics, so it’s not in agreement with naturalism. But yet at the same time they maintain that ascribing mental properties to brains (say) doesn’t mean that brains violate the laws of physics. I don’t understand why they can’t see that their second point stands in regards to mental properties at the bottom just as much as it applies to those at the higher, complex, levels such as the human brain.

I don’t really have much of a point. I just wanted to say – boo on this dreadful definition of the ‘supernatural’. In addition to being wrong, putting the emphasis on the place of consciousness is just not productive. We are not served by a definition of naturalism that speaks about the place of consciousness in nature, but doesn’t speak about the content of nature! Carrier’s definition that “every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things” tells us nothing about what the reality that these fundamental (supposedly nonmental) things constitute. It tells us nothing about the fact that lightning is  just an electrical discharge; about the regularities and sameness in nature, which is what allows us to explore it, understand it, and call it ‘nature’. It’s useless for building a picture of what the world is like, irrespective of the metaphysical status of consciousness in it.

We naturalists need a definition that leads to the fact that the world behaves naturally, which is what the naturalism-as-uniformity definition does. When everything is the same then, implicitly, the place of consciousness in nature is revealed to be not independent of the laws of physics. But the focus is on the general principle of uniformity, that underlies contemporary physics and naturalistic explanations in general and that, ever since David Hume, defines what ‘nature’ and laws of nature are all about.

[1] That’s how I know of Reppert’s post – I follow Oerter’s blog.

[2] Chalmers prefers terms like panprotopanpsychism to emphasize that the fundamental mental properties are not full minds; I’m not sure that’s helpful. Since one of the things he’s trying to imply here is that they have no phenomenal properties, no ‘subjecivity’, which is not my position – I prefer to stick to the more conventional panpsychism.


13 thoughts on “Supernatural Minds

  1. Yair…finally finished raking up all those darn live oak leaves which inhibit my grass from growing. Now I’m back to see how well you “rant hysterically,” and I’m impressed. Much more reasonable than I expected or you implied.

    One thing that confuses me when I read philosophical debates on these subjects you discuss in this post, is why everyone now “labels” their beliefs, just as those who label their organized religion. I’ve lived long enough to know that I can change my mind about what I believe if I find new information that warrants it. My mind stays confused enough about what some folks claim who have no reason to believe it other than someone else suggested it, they haven’t experienced it for themselves.

    Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so curious about science, religion, physics, philosophy, and the endless wonders of our Universe…but I’m given no choice that I can determine.

    • An interesting question. There are two issues here, however.

      On the philosophical level, labeling is vital to divide the intellectual landscape and to filter out opinions already judged wrong so as to focus on the areas you want to learn more. I don’t think it’s possible to learn and form opinions in any domain without labels.

      On the social level, however, labeling one’s opinions is I feel more a social statement and action. I label myself a ‘liberal democrat’ because I want to advance the ideals of liberal democracy. I label myself a ‘naturalist’ because I want to advance naturalistic beliefs and stamp out supernatural beliefs. In this respect, it is very much like religion, evangelical religion even. Of course, one may label oneself a ‘naturalist’ without these goals, but I find that people tend to do so more, and more emphatically, due to such “evangelical” motivation.

      However, labeling is not the same as dogmatic commitment. When someone labels himself a ‘naturalist’, this doesn’t mean he isn’t open to changing his mind on the matter. It just means he has tentatively made up his mind on the matter, pending further arguments or evidence.



      • Yair, Sometimes I wonder on what “level” I think and where I belong, if at all in the “intellectual landscape.” Perhaps that’s why I don’t favor labeling myself…though I’ve also promoted liberal democracy all my adulthood, that social philosophy came naturally and I’ve never changed my mind about it.

        I was born Catholic, but gave that far out “philosophy” up decades ago. I chose to have babies, rather than get a “higher” education. I still don’t consider that a mistake. It’s why I consider myself to have a “simple” mind and use “simple” language.

        When you say you want to stamp out supernatural beliefs, are you referring more to the werewolf/vampire sort… or “religion miracle” aspects of it…or something else?”

        In logic…I’ve qualified in the Mensa range…in trying to figure out why and what purpose it serves…I’m still searching for answers. Very nice to make your acquaintance…though a bit through the “backdoor.”

        Cheers to you also, Yair…which ironically is my usual salutation! 🙂

        I will add you to my blogroll so I can continue to read what you “rant” about. If you care to, you can check out the various themes I “rant” about at:


      • Anna: I’m concerned about blind-faith in general, but mostly in regards to how religious ideas affect politics (I’m from Israel, where their affect is disasterous), the appreciation of science and nature, and most tragically of all – medicine (where their effects can be tragic).

        Nice to have met you too, and I’ll look at that blog of yours.


  2. I’ve a question. How do you exclude heaven, hell and ,say, witchcraft, from natural stuff if they exhibit some uniformity?
    You can observe witchcraft, for example, and say:”well, if I swish and flick this wand and say Avada Kedavra” someone will die. It’s kind of a rule. It’s “all the same”.

    I stick to a cultural definition of supernatural, none of those philosophical ones seem to work properly.

    • The idea of “uniformity” here is the far greater uniformity that is exemplified by things like the fundamental laws of physics. If it was found that whenever we say “Abra Kadabra” someone dies, that will be a stark violation of the otherwise-uniform laws of physics. Likewise for bolts being thrown by Zeus instead of being electrical discharges, and so ghosts, and so on.

      If, on the other hand, we found that ghosts do exist and work in the same way as everything else, i.e. following the same uniform laws of nature, then we will indeed rightly classify them as “natural” – they’ll be just another part of the natural order.

      The “supernatural” essentially (supposedly) works by highly non-uniform laws, often ones responding to the level of human will, words, social conventions or so on, rather than working off much lower-level laws, laws having to do with atoms and even subatomic particles, laws that care naught about what words you utter, or whether the piece piercing the body is made of silver, or so on.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I think I understand what you mean by uniformity now.

        But I’ve another question. What about morality?
        Morality is certainly related to human will, words and social convention. Morality also appears to have little to do with physical laws.

        How is it “uniform” then, for something to be moral or immoral ?

      • Morality doesn’t have anything much to do with physical laws, no, but I think it has little to do with being “Natural” or “Supernatural” either.

        “Moral” or “Good” is a label we put on stuff based on very large-scale features of it, features such as whether it’s fair, or causes suffering to humans, or so on. That has very little to do with whether the world is uniform.

        Now, if you can show that being good matters for the universe in the sense that there are laws of nature based on morality – for example, that the universe rewards people who are Just, or that Karma returns evil deeds 7 fold on the wicked, or so on – then you would be showing that the universe is supernatural.

      • “Moral” or “Good” is a label we put on stuff based on very large-scale features of it,”

        That seems a difficult position to defend, It certainly looks as if you’re saying that morality depends on human beings. I still don’t see how morality would not be supernatural based on the definitions you gave. It has nothing to do with physical laws and a lot to do with what humans do/think and how they interact. How can abstract objects, such as, say, “mathematics” and “greatness” be natural?

        Because if the answer is “because they are all the same, they never change”
        That would be true, but it would also be true to vampires and werewolves, say, because werewolves supposedly never change (what makes them werewolves) and neither do vampires, nor God, nor hell. All these places/creatures are defined to be “all the same”.

        And, if the answer has to do with laws of physics, as you say, morality and ontological fondations have little to do with these laws, How are they supernatural?

        Sorry, it has been a bit difficult to understand these things and I’m new to it.

      • Harpia,

        “It certainly looks as if you’re saying that morality depends on human beings.”

        It actually does, but that’s not the point. Consider some other macroscopic property, like, say, the apple being red. This is a label we put on a the microscopic state because it belongs to a wide family of macroscopic states which are all “red apple”. That doesn’t mean that whether the apple is red depends on human beings. You can see morality as operating in the same way. We say that something is unjust because of how it affects things like human suffering or justice, but this doesn’t mean that human suffering or justice have to be there at the microscopic level (just like being a “red apple” isn’t).

        “I still don’t see how morality would not be supernatural based on the definitions you gave. It has nothing to do with physical laws and a lot to do with what humans do/think and how they interact.”

        The question is whether, at the microscopic level, morality leads to deviations from the laws of nature. That the apple is red also affects what humans think and how they interact (if, say, I want to buy a red apple) – but supposedly it does so in a way that is consistent with the laws of nature. If so, the apple being red isn’t supernatural. Similarly, that morality affects how humans think and interact may be consistent with the laws of physics, in which case it would be natural.

        “How can abstract objects, such as, say, “mathematics” and “greatness” be natural?”

        Presumably, these kind of abstractions affect our thoughts in ways that are consistent with the laws of physics. We are built to reason well, much like a computer is, so that we are affected in the right way by mathematical proofs, for example – they lead us to believe in the derived theorems.

        “Because if the answer is “because they are all the same, they never change”
        That would be true, but it would also be true to vampires and werewolves, say, because werewolves supposedly never change (what makes them werewolves) and neither do vampires, nor God, nor hell. All these places/creatures are defined to be “all the same”.”

        That isn’t the answer. Being “all the same” is about operating in the same way as everything else does, i.e. about obeying the laws of physics, not about being unchanging.

        A vampire would be supernatural because there is no natural mechanism that makes it explode in daylight (say) – when it does that, it does not follow the regular laws of physics that everything else does, it is not “all the same” as them in this sense. Likewise for werewolves changing their shape. And God being immaterial, and hell obeying very different physics.

        “And, if the answer has to do with laws of physics, as you say, morality and ontological fondations have little to do with these laws, How are they supernatural?”

        My claim is that a useful understanding of the concept of “natural” is that everything is following the same basic laws of physics. If God exists as an immaterial cause, then this is an ontological entity that violates the the laws of physics and is hence supernatural. If good people suffer have lesser chance of being hit by meteorites, say, then the laws of nature are not microscopic and uniform but rather have this very weird high-level rule, so the universe would be supernatural in this case.

        I maintain this is a useful understanding of what ‘natural’, and hence ‘supernatural’, is. It provides us with a good picture of what a ‘natural’ world would look like, and with an ontological foundation for our epistemic method, i.e. it explains why science works.

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