Below you will find four outstanding thesis statements for “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in “The Blue Hotel” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Blue Hotel” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.For background, here is a plot summary of “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1 : Determining the Antagonist and Protagonist of “The Blue Hotel”
There have often been differing interpretations of who the antagonist in this story is. Some say it is the Swede while others contend it is the town or outside influences—that the antagonist is not even a human. The Swede is the major antagonist of “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane because from the very beginning he makes those around him angry and uncomfortable—even before he begins to fight and becomes obnoxious. He cannot really be seen as the protagonist since without him the other characters might have gotten along just fine. He instigates the action and acts antagonistically toward other characters. His identity is only “the Swede" and this is stressed to show him as being an outsider just by nature of his heritage, thus in some ways setting up as an antagonist simply because of his “otherness"
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2 : Character Analysis of The Swede in “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
The Easterner’s analysis of the Swede’s actions would explain why he began as fearful and ended up overcompensating once he thought he was safe. While this does not fully explain the Swede’s actions, it may account for his sudden change in personality. At first he cowered because of his perceptions of the Old West and once he saw that he was safe, he decided to act like his perceptions of a typical old West man, thinking nothing would come of it. This is a critique of the dime store perceptions of the Old West because they portray the Old West as a violent playground of gamblers and swindlers. It also almost seems as though the Swede is trying to provoke a response (especially at the saloon) that fits into his version of what the Old West is supposed to be.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3 : Formal Elements of Stephen Crane's “The Blue Hotel”
While the story by Stephen Crane is sequential in nature, the elements of abstract formal structure correspond perfectly with Crane’s almost nonsensical divisions within the story. It almost seems as though the story would have been perfectly complete without these divisions, but it seems as though these dividers break up the action so the reader can think about the deeper issues in each section instead of thinking about the story as a whole. The reason why most of the events take place at the Blue Hotel is because it shows the development of the Swede from fearful outsider to boasting troublemaker. It also sets the reader up for his eventual transition in this plot of “The Blue Hotel” into the saloon (the quintessential “Old West" setting) and makes the “dime store" theory more profound. When we find out that Johnny was cheating, we see that it does not matter in the end, that what was important was the Swede’s reaction.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4 : Retribution in “The Blue Hotel” ?
It does not seem as though the events could have been stopped and it does seem as though the Easterner is right, that all five of them had some part in the Swede’s death. While this may have a ring of truth, it does not fully account for the Swede’s action since it seems as though the Swede was bent on a certain path because of his perceptions about what would happen. While all parties might have contributed something to his death, it seems that the Swede’s greatest “sin" was allowing himself to believe the dime store theories about the Old West.
For background, here is a plot summary of “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane
This list of important quotations from “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Blue Hotel” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way.
If you’re writing about stereotypes about the Old West influence the story, there are a
host of quotes that are likely to help you out. In this same vein, think about how the following quotes are examples of naturalism (the environment regulating action) … These are both themes you’ll find throughout Crane’s works…
The Swede says to Johnny upon entering (when he is beginning to act paranoid) … “I supposed there have been a good many men killed in this room" and when they ask him about playing cards, he yells out, “I don’t want no fight!"
The Easterner says, “Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me this man has been reading dime novels, and he thinks he’s right out in the middle of it—shootin’ and stabbin’ and all"
Now, what do you make of the Easterner’s statement: “Every sin is the result of collaboration" (think about this if you are asked a question about who the protagonist is and compare your thoughts with those invoked by the quotes above)
A Defense of Naturalism
by Keith Augustine
Professor Raymond F. Martin, Chair
Professor Allen Stairs
Professor Corey Washington
Chapter 1: Naturalism and the Natural-Supernatural Distinction
What is Naturalism?
The Meaning of 'Nature' or 'Natural'
The Natural-Supernatural Distinction
Chapter 2: An Empirical Case for Naturalism
Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence
Metaphysical and Methodological Naturalism
A Natural History of the Universe
Naturalism and a Scientific Picture of the World
The Status of Parapsychological Research
Throughout the twentieth century naturalism has been a label for a variety of distinct positions which have little, if anything, in common. In ethics, naturalism is a form of moral realism which contends that ethical properties are objective in virtue of being reducible to or identical to natural properties, where natural properties are simply the properties investigated by various sciences. In metaphysics, naturalism typically takes a form of materialism or physicalism: Everything that exists is either physical or supervenient upon the physical. Naturalism in epistemology contends that the role of epistemology is to describe how knowledge is obtained rather than to set out a priori criteria for the justification of beliefs; thereby a naturalized epistemology provides theories of knowledge and justification which eliminate normative standards by using only scientific concepts.
In this essay I will be concerned with naturalism in the philosophy of religion, where other basic metaphysical and epistemological issues will arise. Naturalism in this domain is the antithesis of supernaturalism--it is often construed as the view that everything that exists is natural and thus by implication that the supernatural does not exist. Behind this superficially simple formulation of naturalism, however, lies a wealth of implicit complexity. Part of this complexity consists of the analysis of the meaning of the word 'nature' or 'natural', how nature is to be characterized, and how the natural-supernatural distinction is to be drawn, both in theory and in practice. These issues will be addressed in the first part of this essay. In the second part I will defend naturalism as a more reasonable option for belief than either supernaturalism or agnosticism. This defense of naturalism will rest on an argument which contends that the lack of uncontroversial evidence for potential instances of supernatural causation provides strong inductive grounds for taking naturalism to be true.
What is Naturalism?
One of the most common versions of naturalism is the position that everything that exists is natural. Robert Audi defines naturalism, broadly construed, as "the view that nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature" (Audi 1996, p. 372). Rem B. Edwards offers a similar definition: "[T]he naturalist is one who affirms that only nature exists and by implication that the supernatural does not exist... The [natural] world is all of reality; it is all there is; there is no 'other world' " (Edwards 1972, p. 135). Although these definitions capture some of the most fundamental features of naturalism, I think that naturalism can be--and thus should be--defined less strongly. Alan Lacey captures the heart of naturalism when he writes: "What [naturalism] insists on is that the world of nature should form a single sphere without incursions from outside by souls or spirits, divine or human" (Lacey 1995, p. 604).
I think that most naturalists would agree that naturalism at least entails that nature is a closed system containing only natural causes and their effects. Fundamentally, naturalism is a metaphysical position about what sorts of causal relations exist--it is the position that every caused event within the natural world has a natural cause. This definition of naturalism is weaker than "everything that exists is natural" because it leaves open the possibility that the natural world does not exhaust all of reality: There may be some aspects of reality which exist outside of nature. Which aspects of reality are nonnatural in this sense will vary with the different definitions of nature or natural being used. It may even be impossible in principle to know that such nonnatural realms exist. But this weaker definition retains the fundamental core of naturalism by denying that supernatural causation exists. It would thus be better to say that naturalism is the position that everything that exists within nature is itself natural and is solely influenced by natural causes.
Naturalism, as I conceive it, thus allows the existence of both nature and realms that may exist outside of nature; it simply stipulates that any nonnatural realms which may exist cannot causally influence the natural world. Even the possibility of nonnatural causation is not ruled out so long as both the cause and effect reside in some nonnatural realm. Thus naturalism allows for the existence of both the natural and the nonnatural--including instances of natural and nonnatural causation--as long as these domains are causally separate. A supernatural cause, on this view, would be a nonnatural cause of an event within nature. The phrase 'supernatural event' is best taken to refer to an event within nature which has a supernatural cause. The phrase 'natural event' can refer to either an event with a natural cause or an event in the natural world. We should distinguish between these two, so I will not use the phrase 'natural event'. Instead, I will use the phrases 'naturally-caused event' and 'event within nature' (or the natural world), respectively, to mark this distinction. Naturalism is thus best construed as the denial of the existence of any genuine instances of supernatural causation, whereas supernaturalism is the affirmation of the existence of such instances.
Arthur C. Danto comes closest to explicitly defining naturalism in this way when he characterizes naturalism as entailing that "The entire knowable universe is composed of natural objects--that is, objects which come into and pass out of existence in consequence of the operation of 'natural causes' " (Danto 1972, p. 448). But what is a natural cause? According to Danto,
A natural cause is a natural object or an episode in the history of a natural object which brings about a change in some other natural object... [I]t is solely with reference to natural causes that we explain changes in the behavior of natural objects. This may require reference to objects which we cannot directly experience, but these will nevertheless still be natural objects, and we need never go outside the system of natural objects for explanations of what takes place within it. Reference to nonnatural objects is never explanatory (Danto 1972, p. 448).
Insofar as the meaning of the term 'natural' is not made explicit, the definition above leaves open the possibility that 'natural cause' might be defined broadly as any cause of a change in the behavior of a natural object. Such a broad definition of 'natural cause' clearly begs the question: That all causes of events within nature are natural causes is precisely the issue in question. We certainly don't want this thesis to be true by definition--that is, true in a trivial sense. Rather, we want naturalism to be a position which--if true--is informative. The poignant feature of Danto's definition which seems most essential to naturalism is the thesis that we never need to look to something outside of the natural world to explain anything within the natural world.
On Danto's definition, we may not always be able to directly experience a natural cause, but presumably we should be able to experience it indirectly, as when we think of atoms as natural objects. While Danto never states how he distinguishes between directly experiencing an object and indirectly experiencing it, I will presume that he means something like the following: An object is directly experienced if it is immediately present to our senses; it is indirectly experienced if we must infer its presence to explain the behavior of other objects which are immediately present to our senses. Danto's discussion of nonnatural objects indicates that he does not intend 'natural cause' to refer simply to any cause of a change in a natural object:
The universe may in addition contain one or another sort of nonnatural object, but we have no reason for allowing the existence of nonnatural objects unless they have impact on the observable behavior of natural objects, for natural objects are the only objects about which we know directly, and it would be only with reference to their perturbations that we might secure indirect knowledge of nonnatural objects, should there be any (Danto 1972, p. 448).
Suppose we grant Danto his assumption that only natural objects can be known directly. A crucial question still arises: Among indirectly-known objects, how do we distinguish between those which are natural and those which are nonnatural?
The Meaning of 'Nature' or 'Natural'
Danto's definition of a natural cause, while capturing very general features of natural causation and natural causal explanation, does not shed much light on what is meant by the term 'natural' itself. One obvious candidate for what is meant by the term 'natural' is physical. The earliest forms of naturalism, in fact, were versions of materialism or physicalism which maintained that everything that exists is physical. As I have construed naturalism, simple (reductive) physicalism maintains that everything that exists within nature is physical and solely influenced by physical causes. However, the prominent twentieth century debate over materialism in the philosophy of mind has revealed several difficulties with reductive physicalism as a solution to the mind-body problem.
One of the most persistent difficulties for reductive physicalism has been the apparent inability of physicalistic explanations to capture qualitative features of conscious experience. It has been persuasively argued that qualia--the experiential feels of 'what it is like' to be in a conscious mental state--cannot be captured by any physicalistic explanations in principle because physicalistic explanations inherently refer to objective or public features of phenomena, whereas the experiential features of consciousness are inherently subjective or private (Teller 1992, pp. 190-191). While such arguments for the irreducibility of consciousness are not the last word on the subject, they have not been decisively refuted either--at least not in the view of several prominent philosophers. Although such difficulties may be resolved in the future, their current resistance to a clear resolution that gains widespread acceptance gives us good reason to resist simply identifying the natural with the physical.
In the contemporary philosophy of mind, an attractive alternative to reductive physicalism is some version of nonreductive physicalism or property dualism. According to nonreductive physicalism, mental states are not simply identical to certain physical states (such as brain states), as reductive physicalists hold; rather, mental states are supervenient upon those physical states. There have been several competing definitions of supervenience suggested in the philosophical literature. In general, however, to say that mental states supervene upon physical states is to say that there can be no differences between mental states without a physical difference between the objects which instantiate those states (Beckermann 1992, p. 11). This physical difference usually amounts to a difference in brain states, though the same mental states may be supervenient upon the physical states of an advanced computer or of an extraterrestrial brain. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that for a mental state to be supervenient upon a physical state entails that a mental state is dependent upon and determined by that physical state without necessarily being identical to it.
But if mental states are supervenient upon some physical states and are not identical to any physical states, this means that mental states are--by definition--nonphysical. If we accept nonreductive physicalism (or even admit it as a reasonable position) and want to retain naturalism, we do not want to say that 'natural' is simply equivalent to 'physical'. However, the driving idea behind nonreductive physicalism allows us to consider another candidate for the natural: perhaps the term 'natural' means physical or supervenient upon the physical. On my definition of naturalism, nonreductive physicalism maintains that everything that exists within nature is either physical or supervenient upon the physical and solely influenced by physical causes or causes which are supervenient upon physical causes. A more economical statement of this form of naturalism would drop the idea of supervenient causation: everything that exists within nature is either physical or supervenient upon the physical and solely influenced by physical causes. Most reductive and nonreductive physicalists alike subscribe to the causal closure of the physical--the view that all caused events in the physical world must have physical causes (Van Gulick 1992, p. 160). Moreover, nonphysical causation is unlikely given that the brain would behave noticeably differently under the constant influence of nonphysical causes than it would in the absence of such influence and we see no evidence for nonphysical influences on the brain.
If naturalism is construed as the position that everything that exists is natural, the definition of natural as 'physical or supervenient upon the physical'--though initially promising--runs into potential difficulties. Consider the philosophical debate over the existence of abstract objects. According to Platonism, there exists a class of mind-independent entities called abstract objects (Hale 1987, p. 11). On traditional Platonic accounts, abstract objects are immutable and timeless entities which are incapable of being involved in causal interactions--that is, are acausal--because they exist outside of space and time in a Platonic realm of unchanging and eternal forms. A paradigm candidate for a genuine abstract object is a number:
Numbers, sets and other stock examples of the abstract have neither spatial nor temporal position. Someone who seriously persisted in asking after the whereabouts of the number 3, say, or when it began to exist, or how long it will endure, etc., could only be supposed to be the victim of a gross misconception concerning what kind of thing numbers are (or are taken to be). With such paradigmatic examples of the abstract in mind, it is natural to propose that the distinguishing feature of abstract objects is lack of spatial or temporal location (Hale 1987, p. 48).
However, it is questionable whether Platonism must be characterized in this way. For example, Bob Hale points out that while all candidates for abstract objects are nonspatial, certain candidates for abstract objects, such as the game of chess and the English language, have an origin in time (Hale 1987, p. 49). One could argue that such examples are not genuine abstract objects after all, though Hale thinks that this is implausible. Despite this assessment, however, Hale does concede that "the vast majority of abstract objects surely are wholly atemporal as well as non-spatial" (Hale 1987, p. 253). Perhaps the only abstract objects which we are forced to countenance as real, if we are forced to countenance any at all, are those which clearly exist outside of space and time. This would explain why abstract objects are in some sense acausal. Hale points out that while it isn't obvious that abstract objects must be completely acausal, "when abstract objects are said to be constitutionally incapable of causal involvement, what is meant is that they cannot be causes of change, and perhaps also that they cannot undergo change" (Hale 1987, p. 2). Given Danto's understanding of a cause as something "which brings about a change" in an object, abstract objects are acausal in the sense of causality that we are interested in.
In any case, I will confine our exploration of the controversy over abstract objects to paradigm cases of abstract objects like numbers where the traditional definition of abstract objects does apply. There is nothing we can point to within space and time and say 'that is the number 4'. Furthermore, numbers and the relations between them are unchanging and mathematical truths like 2+2=4 seem timelessly true. Physical objects such as acorns can be arranged such that we can say that there are only four of those objects within a given space, but these objects exemplify instances of the number 4--they are not equivalent to '4' itself. On a Platonic account, four acorns are a concrete and particular exemplification of this abstract and universal form. So 4 is a universal concept rather than a particular one. The number 4 is also an abstract concept rather than a concrete one, unlike the idea of an acorn. We cannot point to the number 4 in the way we can point to an acorn--this is the essence of what being an abstract object is.
Does naturalism allow the existence of abstract objects? Alan Lacey thinks that naturalism construes the natural world as a closed system of natural causes and effects "without having to accommodate strange entities like non-natural values or substantive abstract universals" (Lacey 1995, p. 604). Similarly, Arthur C. Danto thinks that naturalism entails the denial of the existence of abstract objects. Danto argues that formal sciences like mathematics
no more entail a Platonistic ontology than [the empirical sciences do], nor are we, in using algorithms, committed to the existence of numerical entities as nonnatural objects. If the formal sciences are about anything, it will at least not be a realm of timeless numerical essences, and at any rate logic and mathematics are properly appreciated in terms not of subject matter but of function, as instruments for coping with this world rather than as descriptions of another one (Danto 1972, p. 449).
Robert Audi, by contrast, thinks that naturalists can admit the existence of abstract objects, noting that they would still be naturalists 'about the world': "[A] naturalist does not have to be a radical physicalist--taking the position that only physical phenomena are real, not even excepting such well-behaved abstract entities as sets" (Audi 2000, p. 31). Audi argues that abstract objects may be essential for any adequate ontology: "It is even more obvious that it could turn out to be impossible to give an adequate account of science, not to mention philosophy, without positing some kinds of abstract entities, such as numbers, propositions, and possible worlds" (Audi 2000, p. 32).
What grounds do we have to believe that abstract objects actually exist? There has been a persuasive argument that at least some abstract entities, particularly mathematical objects such as numbers and sets, are indispensable to our best scientific theories (Hale 1987, p. 104). Insofar as our best scientific theories rely on mathematical descriptions which (allegedly) presuppose the existence of mathematical abstract objects and we ought to believe those theories, we ought to (so the argument goes) accept the existence of at least some abstract objects. The grounds for belief in abstract objects, on this view, are equivalent to the grounds we have for believing in the existence of theoretical entities essential to physics, such as electrons. Of course there are also grounds for doubting the existence of any abstract objects. A common nominalist objection is that by their acausal nature abstract objects are impossible to detect (directly or indirectly) in principle and thus it would be impossible for us to have knowledge of them even if they did exist (Hale 1987, p. 79). Many nominalists conclude that since Platonists do claim to have knowledge of abstract objects and such knowledge is impossible in principle, the concept of an abstract object is incoherent and thus abstract objects do not exist.
At this point in history there is no clear resolution to the question of whether abstract objects exist. However, many philosophers believe that we must admit the existence of at least some Platonic abstract objects if we are going to provide an adequate account of the world. Because intuitively, at least, there do seem to be abstract objects which are acausal and exist outside of space and time, we have grounds for thinking that the 'physical or supervenient upon the physical' criterion for what it means to be natural may be deficient. Such a criterion will certainly not allow for the existence of natural abstract objects. While it is still an open question whether such objects actually exist, if we do want to admit the possibility of their existence on this criterion we would have to admit that such objects (if real) are nonnatural.
Because abstract objects are acausal, at least in the sense of not being causes of change, they cannot be supernatural. But depending on how strongly you characterize naturalism, abstract objects may or may not count as part of reality. If naturalism means that everything is natural and natural means "physical or supervenient upon the physical", then naturalism entails a denial of the existence of abstract objects since abstract objects are neither physical nor supervenient upon anything physical. However, if naturalism merely entails that everything that exists within nature is itself natural and is solely influenced by natural causes, then naturalism can admit the existence of nonnatural abstract objects which exist outside of nature and do not causally influence the natural world. Arguably, the issues involved in the Platonic realism-nominalism debate should be settled on grounds independent of the truth or falsity of naturalism or how naturalism is characterized.
Even if we accept a weaker definition of naturalism which allows for the existence of nonnatural abstract objects and we want to say that 'natural' is equivalent to 'physical or supervenient upon the physical', it isn't clear what 'physical' itself means. In order to determine what 'physical' means it seems that we have to identify characteristics that all physical things have in common--that is, we have to identify fundamental physical properties. Anything belonging to the category 'physical' would at least exhibit those properties. Identifying properties common to all physical objects does not seem too daunting a task: All physical objects seem to have mass, for example. But physical objects do not exhaust the category 'physical'; the category also includes forms of energy, types of events, physical processes, and even spacetime itself. William P. Alston points out how difficult it is to determine what it means for something to be physical:
I take it to be reasonably clear what it is for a substance to be a material substance. Being spatially extended (plus, perhaps, having certain fundamental physical properties like mass) would seem to be necessary and sufficient. But what it is to be a material (physical) state, property, process, or event presents considerably more difficulty. States and properties (and perhaps events and processes as well) are not susceptible to spatial extension in the clear, unproblematic way substances are... [W]e might say that a state, event, or process is physical if it is definable as the exemplification (by a physical substance?) of one or more physical properties (Alston 2000).
But if we label something physical because it exemplifies physical properties we are back to where we started--we still have not said what it means for a property to be physical. While we can list several clear-cut examples of physical properties (e.g. mass, electric charge, gravitational attraction), we cannot say what it is about those properties that makes them physical.
The possibility of property dualism as a solution to the mind-body problem also makes it impossible to identify physical properties simply as the properties of physical substances--arguably, some physical substances (such as functioning brains) will have nonphysical mental properties. Alston sees the debate between reductive physicalists and property dualists as evidence of a lack of any clear notion of the physical:
What is our concept of 'physical state' such that it is a sensible question as to whether my believing that p or my being visually presented with a maple tree is or is not a physical state, given that I do not recognize the possibility of a non-physical substance of which it is a state? Spatial location cannot be the issue. States of me are not spatially located in the way in which I am. Again, it may be said that the question is as to whether the property of believing that p is a physical property. But what is that issue? What does it take to make a property physical? Presumably being a property of a physical substance is not sufficient, or there would be no controversy here. So what are the pure materialist and the property dualist arguing about? (Alston 2000).
Alston also points out that physical forces have physical properties yet do not necessarily belong to an extended physical substance.
This leads us to an alternative possibility: Perhaps we should define 'physical' as that which constitutes the subject matter of the physical sciences. That is, that which is physical is that which physics countenances as part of its subject matter. There are at least two problems with this suggestion, however. First, certain concepts (such as mental categories) may be countenanced into physical science in the future, although they are not now:
If... we do not characterize the physical intrinsically in terms of some kind of property, we appear forced to define it by appeal to what physical scientists discover, or perhaps would ultimately discover. Then we cannot know a priori that, for example, irreducibly mentalistic explanations will not ultimately be part of what the people we call physicists consider their best overall account of reality (Audi 1996, p. 373).
Second, by defining 'physical' as what physicists study, we make an ontological category relative to the state of scientific knowledge:
When we define the physical by reference to what physical scientists think and work with, what period of the history of science are we to pick for this purpose? It seems arbitrary to canonize the present moment as defining a central metaphysical category. But if we make the definition relative to the stage of scientific development we are considering, then the metaphysical issues change with each fundamental shift in science (Alston 2000).
If abstract objects exist we can still maintain that the category 'natural' is equivalent to 'physical or supervenient upon the physical' by arguing that abstract objects are nonnatural. The possible existence of abstract objects only gives us reason to construe naturalism less strongly than it often is, admitting the possible existence of the nonnatural (but not the supernatural). However, as the discussion above illustrates, it is far from clear what 'physical' itself means. The best we may be able to do is say what sorts of things are clearly physical and what sorts of things appear to be nonphysical and admit that we have no clear criteria for distinguishing between the two. Perhaps this is an ambiguity we can live with--after all, as we soon shall see, there is going to be ambiguity in every definition of 'natural' considered. Nevertheless, this gives us some reason to consider other potential candidates for the category 'natural' in the hope that they will be less ambiguous than 'physical or supervenient upon the physical'.
Another candidate for what the category 'natural' refers to is the spatiotemporal--the 'natural' is that which exists within space and time. On this criterion, for an object to be natural it must have spatial extension and temporal duration; thus abstract objects are nonnatural on this criterion as well. Danto claims that "[e]very natural object exists within the spatiotemporal and the causal orders" (Danto 1972, p. 448). Similarly, Rem B. Edwards defines nature as "the spatiotemporal universe as a whole existing independently of [a] knowing mind" (Edwards 1972, p. 135). Edwards also implies that 'natural' is synonymous with 'spatiotemporal' when he claims that naturalism entails the following: "[A]ll natural events have causes that are themselves natural events. The occurrence of every spatiotemporal event is caused by some other spatiotemporal event or events" (Edwards 1972, p. 136). The fundamental dispute between naturalists and supernaturalists, according to Herbert Spiegelberg, is whether the spatiotemporal exhausts all of reality:
Both [naturalists and supernaturalists] seem to understand by 'nature' the sum total of all occurrents in time and space which are (1) explainable by other occurrents within the same order... and which are (2) usually, though perhaps not necessarily, subject to change... The issue between the two camps would thus seem to be whether nature so defined exhausts the content of reality or whether other entities are to be added for a complete account of the universe (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 342).
An immediate concern is that it is not clear how the spatiotemporal differs from the physical. Is the spatiotemporal simply equivalent to the physical? We do not seem to distinguish between the two terms in everyday usage. However, physicists have speculated about the possible existence of physical entities which are not spatiotemporal. For example, cosmologists have postulated the existence of a singularity--a point of infinite density where the known laws of physics break down--at the beginning of the universe and also believe that singularities lie at the center of black holes. According to Kip Thorne, somewhere near the singularity the unknown laws of quantum gravity take over, replacing spacetime with an exotic quantum foam:
Quantum gravity then radically changes the character of spacetime: It ruptures the unification of space and time into spacetime. It unglues space and time from each other, and then destroys time as a concept and destroys the definiteness of space. Time ceases to exist; no longer can we say that 'this thing happens before that one,' because without time, there is no concept of 'before' or 'after.' Space... becomes a random, probabilistic froth (Thorne 1994, pp. 476-77).
Quantum foam is a theoretical instance of something physical though not spatiotemporal. Furthermore, there may be other universes than the one we inhabit. If we presume that different universes are causally isolated from each other and space and time are merely specific instances of dimensions, it is possible that there will be other universes which are not spatiotemporal but have a different sort of dimensional existence which we cannot even begin to fathom. Moreover, if other universes are spatiotemporal, their spatiotemporal framework will not be our spatiotemporal framework--other universes may have different histories, different laws of physics, and different dimensions than our own. Universes may 'bubble off' from a quantum foam in a sort of 'metauniverse' from which all universes originate--but then that metauniverse will not itself be spatiotemporal.
I imagine that our notion of the natural and the physical should be broad enough to encompass singularities, other universes, a possible metauniverse, and other exotic possibilities raised in cosmology. 'Physical' seems to encompass more than the familiar dimensions of space and time and its contents--it will certainly cover any other dimensions that physicists may postulate. Thus the spatiotemporal seems to fall within the larger domain of the physical. If the physical is too restrictive a category to be identified with the natural, and the physical is broader in scope than the spatiotemporal, then the spatiotemporal criterion would also exclude things we want to count as natural. Thus 'natural' should not be identified with 'spatiotemporal'.
Perhaps by 'natural' we should mean something with a more epistemological flavor than the previous criteria we have considered. Danto also characterizes the natural in terms of scientific knowledge rather than solely in terms of ontological status:
Naturalism... is a species of philosophical monism according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods... paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences... Hence, naturalism is polemically defined as repudiating the view that there exists or could exist any entities or events which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific investigation (Danto 1972, p. 448).
On this criterion, the natural is that which is amenable in principle to scientific investigation. Abstract objects, if they exist, are not scientifically accessible in the way that our paradigm case of natural objects--physical objects--are, and thus should fall within the domain of the nonnatural here as well. Note that on this criterion naturalism is still construed as a metaphysical position even though it is cast in epistemological terms: it is the position that everything that exists within nature is amenable in principle to scientific investigation and solely influenced by causes which are amenable in principle to scientific investigation. This invokes metaphysical claims about what exists within nature and what sorts of causes influence events within nature but characterizes its ontology in epistemological terms as what can be explained scientifically. Presumably, something is amenable in principle to scientific investigation in virtue of some more basic property or properties. However, this criterion alone does not spell out what those properties may be. In my final candidate for the 'natural'--the candidate immediately following this one--I will consider such a property. But for now I will construe the 'amenable in principle to scientific investigation' criterion without spelling out what properties something must have to be amenable in this sense.
There are many phenomena which are not amenable to scientific investigation given our current state of knowledge but intuitively we want to say that some phenomena are clearly scientifically explicable in principle even if we cannot explain them given our current state of knowledge. For example, it isn't clear what happens to a piece of matter when it falls into a black hole but we don't want to say that such a question is scientifically inexplicable in principle. It is simply inexplicable given our current state of physical theory. A future theory of quantum gravity may yield confirmed testable predictions which would allow us to answer that question by determining what the theory predicts about such situations.
However, there are other phenomena which do appear to be scientifically inexplicable in principle. Qualia, for example, resist current scientific explanations because they seem to be inherently private or subjective, whereas scientific explanations seem to require, as a matter of principle, explanations in terms of objective or publicly-accessible features of the world. While the qualia problem may ultimately be resolved, perhaps by denying that qualia really are inherently subjective or by denying that scientific explanations must be cast in terms of objective features of the world, at this point there is no obvious solution in sight. Since biological organisms which are clearly part of the natural world are the subjects of qualitative states we should categorize qualia as falling within the domain of the natural. If there can be no scientific explanation of qualia in principle--which is a tenable position--and we want countenance qualia as part of the natural world, we should not simply identify the natural with that which is amenable in principle to scientific investigation.
One might also object that if there are any other universes which are causally isolated from the universe we inhabit, by definition the contents of these universes would be inaccessible to scientific investigation. Yet we would probably want to countenance any other universes, should there be any, as part of the natural realm. This argument is not as persuasive as the qualia example, however, because the contents of causally-isolated universes would not be amenable in principle to scientific investigation only to us, not to any inhabitants of those particular universes. Nevertheless, the possibility of scientifically inexplicable qualia gives us some reason to resist identifying the natural with that which is amenable in principle to scientific investigation.
In addition to this theoretical problem, it is immediately apparent that this criterion is problematic in a fundamental way: by including the qualifier 'in principle' the criterion is too ambiguous, as it stands, to be of much use. Essentially it appears impossible to say a priori whether or not a given phenomenon is amenable in principle to scientific investigation. The best we can do is say that phenomena for which we have successful scientific explanations are definitely amenable in principle to scientific investigation since they are so amenable in practice. But for phenomena which resist scientific explanation, we cannot say categorically that they are or are not scientifically explicable in principle. The only way that we could determine that a phenomenon is scientifically explicable in principle is by providing a successful scientific explanation of that phenomenon. The problem is that this approach provides an a posteriori answer to such questions when we need an a priori criterion for determining whether something is amenable to scientific investigation in principle.
I do not see any way out of this dilemma. This gives us good reason to abandon 'amenable in principle to scientific investigation' as the sole criterion for the natural. However, if we put qualia aside for the moment, there still may be hope for the criterion if we can find some more basic property or properties by which something is amenable to scientific investigation in principle. By spelling out what properties make an object or event amenable in principle to scientific investigation we may be able to avoid this dilemma.
The final criterion for what makes something natural is that it behaves in accordance with laws of nature. Natural causes are clearly amenable to empirical investigation in principle because they exhibit exceptionless or probabilistic regularities which can be described by laws of nature. Laws of nature are factual statements which accurately describe the behavior of natural objects. By definition, natural laws never change and apply to everything within nature. It is the very existence of lawful regularities which allows us to form causal relationships. If laws of nature did not exist, we could not describe some events as causes and others as effects; the concept of natural causation would have no meaning because events would occur randomly without any recognizable pattern. Any phenomenon which is amenable to scientific investigation can be framed in terms of natural causal relationships established by the discovery of lawful regularities. Thus behaving in accordance with natural laws is a more fundamental criterion for the natural than being amenable in principle to scientific investigation: obeying laws of nature is a prerequisite for being amenable to scientific investigation. Naturalism, on this criterion, contends that everything that exists within nature behaves in accordance with laws of nature and is solely influenced by causes which obey natural laws.
On this criterion--like all the others we have considered--abstract objects are nonnatural. Anything which does not obey laws of nature is nonnatural. Abstract objects do not obey natural laws because they do not exist within nature--the laws of nature simply do not apply to them. However, the laws of nature do apply to all natural objects and events. An event within the natural world which has a cause that does not obey the laws of nature is an event with a supernatural cause. If we exclude the possibility of causal overdetermination for the sake of explanatory simplicity--that is, we exclude the possibility that a supernatural entity could cause an event which could be explained solely in terms of natural causes--then any event within nature which resulted from a supernatural cause would behave in a way which was not in accordance with the laws of nature.
If natural causes are sufficient to bring about an event then an appeal to supernatural causation to explain such an event is at least prima facie unwarranted since it is unnecessary and uninformative. If we defined supernatural causation in such a way that it fell within the scope of purely natural causation it would be impossible to provide a reliable basis for distinguishing between an event with a natural cause from an event with a supernatural cause. Thus, we should assume that a supernatural event--any event within nature (and thus within the domain of laws of nature) which had a supernatural cause--would be a violation of a law of nature. This retains the fundamental idea of the supernatural as an intervention into nature. A phenomenon which does not involve the violation of laws of nature by definition is a natural phenomenon. A supernatural event--such as the parting of the Red Sea as described in the Old Testament--is still presumably governed by some laws of nature: for example, the water still coheres together and holds most of its properties. However, some nonnatural force seems to counteract the natural forces in place, and this amounts to a violation of a law of nature.
More needs to be said about how natural laws themselves are to be understood. I will distinguish actual laws of nature from scientific laws on the following assumption: Scientific laws (such as laws of physics) are inaccurate but reasonable approximations of genuine laws of nature (Armstrong 1983, p. 6). I will also assume a necessitarian account of laws of nature--an account which contends that the actual laws of nature accurately describe physical necessities in nature, whether those necessities are properties of laws themselves or inhere in the constituents of the universe (Leckey and Bigelow 1995, p. 92). This contrasts with a regularity account of laws of nature, according to which laws of nature simply accurately describe which sorts of events happen in the entire history of the universe (Armstrong 1983, p. 32). The difference between these views is that necessitarian accounts imply that laws of nature 'forbid' certain events from happening--the laws of nature 'dictate' that they cannot happen. Events which cannot happen according to natural laws--that is, violations of laws of nature--are physically impossible events. Regularity accounts of laws of nature deny that there is any sort of physical possibility--there is only the logically possible and the purely contingent. A negation of a natural law is simply a description of a logically possible event that never happens in the entire history of the universe.
A necessitarian might argue that any spacecraft we develop cannot travel faster than the speed of light because that would be a physically impossible event--the laws of nature forbid such an event--it cannot happen. A regularity theorist would argue that such an event simply never occurs in the history of the universe--it simply does not happen. On a necessitarian account of laws of nature, such an event would be physically impossible, but on a regularity account, any logically possible event could happen--it just turns out that in the entire history of the universe certain events do not happen even though they could have happened. A major difficulty for regularity accounts of laws of nature is that they fail to distinguish between genuine laws of nature and merely accidental generalizations. For example, on a necessitarian account, it is a physically necessary truth "that all solid spheres of enriched uranium have a diameter of less than one mile" because it would be physically impossible, given the physical properties of enriched uranium, for such a sphere to exist (Weinert 1995, p. 18). This is neither a logically necessary truth nor an accidental truth. It is true in virtue of the laws of nature. By contrast, "that all solid spheres of gold have a diameter of less than one mile" is an accidental generalization--it may be true throughout the entire history of the universe, but the laws of nature do not forbid the existence of such a sphere (Weinert 1995, p. 18).
Consider another example: Suppose in the history of the universe no Tyrannosaurus rex is longer than 60 feet. According to the necessitarian, this is a purely contingent fact--it just happens to be the case that no T. rex exceeded 60 feet, but it wouldn't be physically impossible for a T. rex to have been a foot longer. By contrast, it would be physically impossible for a photon to have mass. The difference between the two cases is that the laws of nature do not forbid the existence of a T. rex exceeding 60 feet. On a regularity account, however, the laws of nature simply describe truths which hold true throughout the history of the universe. If no T. Rex exceeds 60 feet in the entire history of the universe, the regularity theorist seems forced to describe this truth as a law of nature. On a regularity account, there simply is no distinction between laws of nature and accidental generalizations.
How is all of this relevant to our final criterion for the natural? On a necessitarian account, natural laws describe what must be the case--they limit what is or is not possible. It would be more accurate (and more poignant for our purposes) to say that laws of nature limit what is possible assuming only natural causes are present. So if something occurs which is not possible according to laws of nature, then we have a genuine instance of a supernatural event--a physically impossible event. On a regularity account, however, there can be no violations of natural laws by definition because natural laws simply describe what happens in the whole history of the universe without invoking physical necessity or physical possibility.
If one rejects a necessitarian account of laws of nature in favor of a regularity theory, then the 'behaves in accordance with laws of nature' criterion for the natural will have to be abandoned--on a regularity theory every event that occurs in the history of the universe behaves in accordance with the laws of nature by definition. There simply cannot be a violation of a law of nature on a regularity account. On such an account every event which happens within nature obeys the laws of nature and thus, barring causal overdetermination, has natural causes. On a regularity account, the natural-supernatural distinction is abandoned. I will consider reasons why we should not abandon the natural-supernatural distinction in the next section.
Some laws of nature, such as statistical laws, are merely dispositions or propensities for natural objects to behave in certain ways under certain conditions. Such laws leave room for deviations from the normal course of behavior exhibited by the objects they govern. Nevertheless, the circumstances under which such deviations can occur is still constrained by statistical laws. For example, in quantum mechanics the spontaneous appearance of virtual particles out of a vacuum appears to violate the law of conservation of energy. However, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows for the creation of short-lived virtual particles from a vacuum on subatomic scales smaller than the radius of a proton. The creation of a lasting macroscopic physical object such as a chair out of nothing would constitute a violation of a law of nature.
Mental states also appear to be governed by laws of nature. If reductive physicalism is true, mental states obey the same laws of physics that any physical system must obey even if the laws of physics do not make explicit reference to any mental states. If either property dualism or interactionist substance dualism is true, there are laws of nature which govern correlations between mental states and brain states. These laws would not be laws of physics, but psychophysical laws governing, for example, how willing your arm to go up causes it to do so (if mental-to-physical causation occurs) or how being in a certain brain state causes you to feel pain (if physical-to-mental causation occurs).
One objection to identifying the natural with that which behaves in accordance with laws of nature is that the laws themselves, some of which are amenable to scientific investigation, do not behave in accordance with laws of nature. There are two independent issues here. First, scientific laws (our approximations to the laws of nature) are not strictly amenable to scientific investigation in the sense of being scientifically explicable. We cannot provide a scientific explanation for why matter or energy cannot be created or destroyed. We can only explain natural phenomena in terms of such laws. These laws are brute facts where all explanation must ultimately terminate. In the case of our most general laws of nature, we can use science to determine approximations to what these laws are, but not why they obtain rather than a different set of laws. Thus, like qualia appear to be, the laws of nature themselves are in principle scientifically inexplicable. This would provide even stronger grounds for rejecting the 'amenable in principle to scientific investigation' criterion for the natural if we wanted to countenance the laws of nature themselves as part of the natural realm. The second point raised by the objection is that the laws of nature themselves do not obey laws of nature. But this makes our present criterion self-refuting only if the laws of nature are countenanced as part of the natural world. Perhaps they belong to the nonnatural realm. Although laws of nature may necessitate the behavior of natural objects, since by definition they are unchanging they are not causes of change in the behavior of natural objects. Since natural laws cannot be located in space and time and are not causes of change, they appear to qualify as nonnatural abstract objects.
Our central goal in introducing the idea that the natural is that which behaves in accordance with laws of nature was to resolve a difficulty with the 'amenable in principle to scientific investigation' criterion for the natural. That difficulty was that it appears impossible to say a priori whether some phenomenon is amenable to scientific investigation. Only an a posteriori answer is available: In order to determine whether a phenomenon is amenable to scientific investigation we have to subject it to a scientific investigation. If we arrive at a successful scientific explanation of the phenomenon, we have determined that it is amenable to scientific investigation. But for phenomena which continue to resist scientific explanation, we cannot say categorically that they cannot be explained in principle because we have no way of knowing that. There is simply too much room for mistaking the limitations of our cognitive resources or our empirical access to a phenomenon for a metaphysical truth.
The idea that the natural is that which obeys natural laws can explain how something can be amenable to scientific investigation in principle in terms of a more basic property; but it does so at the expense of raising further difficulties associated with the concept of natural laws and does not shed light on the meaning of 'natural' in practice. If the regularity theorist is right, we cannot appeal to the concept of physical necessity to explain events in the natural world. Moreover, even if we assume a necessitarian account of laws of nature, we cannot (from our limited point of view) declare what those laws are with full confidence. Our scientific laws, after all, are merely approximations of genuine laws of nature. They are subject to qualification under different circumstances and we can never exhaust the nearly limitless circumstances under which our scientific laws may need to be qualified. Since no two events are entirely identical, what appears to be a violation of a law of nature may turn out to be, upon further investigation, a new circumstance where our scientific laws need to be modified.
How can we have knowledge of the genuine laws of nature, as opposed to approximations to them? Essentially we can only have knowledge of scientific laws, not the laws of nature themselves, through the empirical discovery of regularities in nature. But if we cannot have knowledge of the laws of nature themselves we cannot say with full confidence that any event is truly a violation of a law of nature (as opposed to a violation of a scientific law). We seem to have reached an impasse in our analysis of the meaning of the term 'natural'. None of our criteria can tell us how to draw the natural-supernatural distinction in practice.
The Natural-Supernatural Distinction
Where does this survey of criterion for the natural leave us? We have seen that there are good reasons for rejecting the simple identification of the natural with the physical, with the spatiotemporal, or with that which is amenable in principle to scientific investigation. In theory, the natural can be identified with the physical or supervenient upon the physical and with that which behaves in accordance with laws of nature. These two criteria can be combined as jointly necessary and sufficient theoretical conditions for the natural. Anything appropriately labeled as natural would have to meet both conditions. Being strictly physical, spatiotemporal, or amenable in principle to scientific investigation would be sufficient conditions (but not necessary ones) for something to be natural. In other words, anything that was physical, spatiotemporal, or scientifically explicable would clearly be natural, but these are not requirements something must meet in order to be considered natural. Conversely, however, being nonphysical, nonspatiotemporal, and scientifically inexplicable would be necessary but not sufficient conditions for the nonnatural--anything that is physical, spatiotemporal, or scientifically explicable cannot be nonnatural.
Combining these criteria with a negation of our remaining criteria for the natural, we are left with the following jointly necessary and sufficient theoretical conditions for the nonnatural: (1) it is nonphysical and not supervenient upon the physical; (2) it is nonspatiotemporal; (3) it is scientifically inexplicable in principle; and (4) it fails to behave in accordance with natural laws. Abstract objects, as paradigm cases of nonnatural objects, meet all of these conditions. Since the supernatural is a more specific subclass of the nonnatural restricted to nonnatural causes of events within nature, a supernatural event would have to be an event in the natural world which has a cause meeting all four of the conditions given above. In theory, causes of events in the natural world which meet these criteria are supernatural causes. But, as we have seen, it is impossible to apply any of these theoretical criteria in practice because of our limited epistemological resources in answering metaphysical questions. We simply do not know what sorts of objects, properties, or phenomena count as nonphysical, what sorts resist scientific investigation in principle, or which actually behave in accordance with genuine laws of nature. Does this mean that we should abandon the natural-supernatural distinction?
Given that we can formulate self-consistent jointly necessary and sufficient theoretical conditions for both the natural and supernatural, the natural-supernatural distinction can be coherently spelled out in theory. However, this does not mean that the distinction has any validity in practice. Labeling an occurrence a supernatural event implies that the "the power and laws of nature could not bring [that event] about" (Hepburn 1972, p. 454). However, the objection goes, we are not in the epistemological position to make such a determination. As Ronald Hepburn points out,
It is anything but easy... to elaborate coherently the nature-supernature distinction. Crucial to it is the claim that we can distinguish what lies within the capacities of nature from what lies beyond them. Our knowledge of nature's powers and laws is itself derived from our experience and observation of events. What we judge to be possible depends upon what we have reason to believe actually occurs or has occurred... [W]hat shall we do with the happenings that, eventually, we wish to label miraculous? To exclude them would be to imply that we already know what nature's powers are, that there are criteria prior to experience by which we interpret our observations. But to include them makes it impossible for us to treat them later as miraculous exceptions to natural laws (Hepburn 1972, p. 454).
Hepburn points out a crucial dilemma: Either we retain the natural-supernatural distinction in practice, placing ourselves in the difficult position of trying to determine a priori which sorts of phenomena are physically impossible--something we cannot say with full confidence--or we abandon the practical distinction altogether, thereby making 'naturally-caused event', for all practical purposes, equivalent to 'any event which occurs in the natural world'. Given these two forced options, we should opt for retaining the natural-supernatural distinction in practice simply because the cost of abandoning it is too great.
Naturalism would become trivially true if we abandoned the practical natural-supernatural distinction. The argument for trivial naturalism would be that it is impossible to draw the natural-supernatural distinction in practice and therefore we are never justified in positing supernatural causes because we can never say that the cause of an event is not natural. This implies that naturalism always wins by default on epistemological grounds, even though not necessarily so on metaphysical grounds. Naturalism becomes trivially true because no matter what phenomenon we encounter, we cannot say it is not a naturally-caused phenomenon. If we abandon the natural-supernatural distinction in practice, so far as we can tell any logically possible event may be a naturally-caused event. Consequently, naturalism becomes trivially true in practice but uninformative and supernaturalism is never an option for belief since all causes of events in the natural world may be natural causes.
Hepburn's point--that we simply do not know what is within nature's powers or laws--is borne out in every impasse we have hit in trying to determine how to apply our theoretical criteria for the natural and the supernatural in practice. While we have a pretty good idea of what 'natural' means in theory, it is difficult to say in practice what counts as instance of an event with a natural or supernatural cause. Herbert Spiegelberg argues that because the supernatural (as a species of the nonnatural) is defined in wholly negative terms, it has little--if any--positive content. If by a supernatural event we mean not merely an extraordinary event but an event that is beyond the power of nature to produce, requiring a suspension or violation of the laws of nature, Spiegelberg points out:
Now it takes very little to see that even this conception of a supernatural event is predominantly negative. It implicitly denies that things usually happen this way and that we, with our knowledge of nature, can ever hope to comprehend them. But we learn nothing positive about the nature of the miraculous event... [W]e are faced with a merely negative understanding of the supernatural (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 348).
But what does a negative understanding of a concept imply? Spiegelberg notes that negative concepts refer to the absence of specific characteristics. For example, the term 'nonwhite' refers to all colored things except those which are white. While 'nonwhite' is a negative concept, it indirectly refers to the positive denotative complement of the term white--colored things. Because 'white' is a species of the proximate genus of colored things, nonwhite too is a species of colored things. The problem Spiegelberg sees with the concept of the supernatural is that there is no proximate genus to which both the natural and nonnatural refer:
[I]n an example like 'not-white'... after subtracting white, all the other known colors remain as, what one might call, the denotative complement. But what exactly is the denotative complement in the case of the not-natural, once we have subtracted the whole range of natural objects and events? It is at this point that the heart of the difficulty appears: we cannot point out a denotative complement to the name 'natural' (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 354).
Spiegelberg argues that because we literally know nothing about the nonnatural we cannot find any positive attributes common to both the natural and nonnatural (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 354). While denying that supernatural terms are completely meaningless, Spiegelberg concludes that "they have no more meaning than an expression like 'the 100th dimension' or '100-valued logic'" (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 355).
Despite this conclusion, Spiegelberg concedes that supernatural terms may have what he calls diagnostic meaning. Diagnostic meaning refers to identifying criteria "for recognizing cases of the supernatural when we see them and for deciding whether a specific pretender to the supernatural title has any right to it" (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 355). However, Spiegelberg is skeptical that the wholly negative concept of the supernatural is meaningful enough to provide means for the reliable identification of the supernatural:
As long as we are unable to point out as much as one positive complement to all the natural properties excluded by the supernaturalist we would never have a chance to tell with assurance: 'This event must be a case of the supernatural... an intercession from a world outside nature into nature' (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 356).
I agree that once we subtract out the natural, there is no positively characterized ontological category to which the nonnatural or supernatural belongs. This does make it impossible to positively confirm that an event had a supernatural cause in the way that we can confirm that engine failure caused a plane to crash. However, this does not strip the supernatural of diagnostic meaning altogether. All that is needed for diagnostic meaning for the supernatural is some reasonable criteria for what a supernatural event would look like. We do not need to say that something meeting those criteria must be supernatural; we need to say only that a supernatural event must meet those criteria. This does, of course, leave open the possibility that something entirely natural could also meet those criteria. But, as we shall see, this concession is not necessarily fatal to drawing out the natural-supernatural distinction in practice. It allows us to distinguish a class of clearly naturally-caused events from a class of possibly supernatural events. While this does not provide a definitive classification for the supernatural, it does narrow down our possible candidates for a supernatural event.
Spiegelberg gives two reasons for denying that we can secure indirect evidence for the supernatural in the way that we can secure indirect evidence for electrons. First, we can only devise testable predictions from well-defined positive concepts (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 356). Second, it is impossible to confirm conclusively that any event has a supernatural cause: "The natural signs predicted as indications of the supernatural are always so indefinite that they can never constitute conclusive proof either way. No confirmation is possible, since no disconfirmation can be conceived of that would unmistakably settle the case" (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 356).
Consider Spiegelberg's second reason for denying that we can secure indirect evidence for the supernatural. I agree that we cannot provide absolutely certain evidence for the supernatural. However, I contend that, in principle, we could provide evidence that any reasonable person would regard as conclusive evidence of the supernatural. First, we can provide conclusive evidence that a certain event occurred. The evidence that an event occurred will clearly be of a different sort than experimental evidence for a scientific hypothesis. The evidence for a scientific hypothesis often consists of repeatable results obtained under carefully controlled conditions, whereas the evidence that any sort of past event occurred is not going to be repeatable on demand in this way. Nevertheless, the evidence that an event occurred can be strong enough that it would be irrational to deny that the event occurred. For example, we have very reliable evidence that a nuclear bomb fell on Hiroshima in 1945, evidence that goes beyond even simple historical records, such as eyewitness testimony, video footage, radioactive traces, etc.
Second, we can provide very good reasons for denying that a certain kind of event could plausibly be construed as an event with a natural cause. Some imaginable events, if they occurred, would be so suggestive of a supernatural cause that it would be unreasonable to hold out indefinitely for a natural explanation of them. I will defend this point in more detail when I present my criteria for drawing out the natural-supernatural distinction in practice. Contrary to Spiegelberg's assertion, there is no reason in principle why there couldn't be conclusive evidence for an event extremely suggestive of a supernatural cause. Moreover, even if we could say only that an event was suggestive of a supernatural cause, though not conclusively so, Spiegelberg is wrong to assert that disconfirmations are not possible. A successful natural explanation of an allegedly supernatural event would be as much disconfirmation of a supernatural cause as the evidence for evolution is disconfirmation of six-day creationism.
Spiegelberg's first reason for denying that we can secure indirect evidence for the supernatural--that we cannot derive testable predictions from supernatural explanations--is related to the following objection: "By what method, if any, can we expect to identify an instance of [supernatural causation] in reality? Without such a method we would be cut off from any possibility of genuine knowledge" (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 357). Spiegelberg's point is that, unlike successful naturalistic explanations grounded in scientific method, we have no methodology on which to ground supernatural explanations.
While I agree with Spiegelberg that, unlike natural explanations, we have no grounds for evaluating competing supernatural explanations for an event, this does not mean that we cannot identify a likely candidate for a supernatural event. I contend that, in principle, there cannot be any methodology which would provide reliable supernatural explanations of an event because of the nature of supernatural causation. Supernatural causation requires a supernatural cause of a natural effect. But, by definition, we cannot have empirical access to a supernatural cause. We can have empirical access only to the effect of a supernatural cause. In order to provide reliable explanations of phenomena we must establish causal relationships through scientific investigation. But since we have no empirical means for gaining information about supernatural causes themselves, we cannot establish laws which express causal relationships between supernatural causes and natural effects, should there be any. We need access to both cause and effect to establish any sort of reliable causal explanation. However, this means only that we cannot understand how a supernatural event occurred; it does not mean that we cannot say that it did occur.
Spiegelberg maintains that ordinarily we establish the existence of an instance of a negative concept by establishing the existence of part of its positive denotative complement--e.g. to establish the existence of 'not-white' we establish the existence of some other color. But since we can find no positive denotative complement to the nonnatural or supernatural, it will be extremely difficult to establish an instance of it:
Since we found that the supernatural in its prevalent negative interpretation has no such positive denotational complement, this simple method of verification is out of the question. Suppose, then, some object should present itself as a candidate to supernatural dignity... All we can hope to do, if we want to check such a claim critically, is to show that it does not fit into any known category of nature. We have therefore to make sure of a comprehensive review of the natural realm, running through all its known and conceivable categories with a view to establishing at least indirectly that here is unmistakable evidence of something different from the familiar pattern and not covered by our 'natural' categories. To do this exhaustively may not seem impossible on principle. But on any concrete occasion this is certainly no small assignment (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 358).
Although establishing an instance of supernatural causation may not be impossible in principle, Spiegelberg contends that to do so in any particular case one would have to eliminate all possible natural explanations for an event--including scientific explanations cast in terms of a future science not yet available to us. Of course, this is not a practical possibility. But even if we could somehow pull this off, Spiegelberg further argues that appeals to the supernatural in such cases, given the negative character of the supernatural, simply reduce to appeals to ignorance.
Given the lack of any methodology for evaluating competing supernatural explanations and the lack of any empirically compelling claim to revelation, I agree that the most we could say in such cases is that the cause of the event in question is not natural. We couldn't say anything about the nature of the supernatural cause itself. In this sense any particular supernatural explanation would be an appeal to ignorance. However, when no natural cause for an event can be found after a completely exhaustive search for natural causes, our only apparent recourse is to postulate a supernatural cause for the event. In actual cases of a possible supernatural event, of course, we will not be able to conduct a completely exhaustive search for natural causes. We cannot do this even for events with natural causes. Other considerations I will consider briefly will make it clear that Spiegelberg's requirement of an exhaustive search of the natural world to establish that a supernatural cause of an event is far more likely than a natural one is too strong.
Spiegelberg's fundamental claim is that in order to say that a phenomenon is supernatural with assurance we must have an exhaustive knowledge of the natural realm and what is possible within it:
There is, however, a much more presumptuous claim involved in any serious affirmation of the supernatural. The supernatural interpretation presupposes a knowledge of the natural sphere so clear and so exhaustive that we can be absolutely sure it does not offer any room for the phenomenon under consideration... Whoever asserts that a certain event is supernatural also asserts that he has complete knowledge of the field marked off as nature as well as full knowledge of what is and what is not possible within it (Spiegelberg 1951, p. 358).
Do we actually have to have complete knowledge of the natural world in order to distinguish between an event with a natural cause and an event with a supernatural one? If we want complete assurance that an event has a supernatural cause we may need an exhaustive survey of the natural world. However, Spiegelberg does not address the possibility that we could determine that an event has a supernatural cause with a reasonable degree of confidence. I will now defend the position that we are in a position to identify events with supernatural causes with a reasonable degree of confidence.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to draw the natural-supernatural distinction in practice. Our impasse in determining what counts as an event with a supernatural cause does not reflect a deficiency in our theoretical criteria for the supernatural, but rather the practical limitations of our epistemological access to fundamental metaphysical categories like 'physical', 'laws of nature', etc. We simply cannot say categorically what it means for something to be physical, to be amenable in principle to scientific investigation, or to be a law of nature. This is a practical difficulty that can be overcome by replacing our theoretical criteria for the supernatural with our closest approximations to them in practice. Thus, what we need is a less theoretical set of conditions for events which may have supernatural causes--what I will call criteria for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. Given that we are working with approximations to our theoretical criteria, it is possible, though unlikely, that something considered entirely natural in terms of our theoretical criteria would be consistent with our practical criteria for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. In other words, anything meeting these practical criteria could be entirely natural, but it is unlikely that anything meeting all of them would be. What would these in practice criteria look like?
In order to answer this question, we must ask another: What would be an indication that an event has a supernatural cause? Consider three examples of what many people would regard as clear-cut supernatural events--stars lining up to spell out 'God exists', the resurrection of a corpse after a century of decomposition, and a marble statue waving its hand at you. What is it about these examples that makes us think these events cannot have solely natural causes? Is it simply that they do not ordinarily happen, much like extinction-level meteor impacts with the Earth? Or is it something more?
In addition to meeting approximations of our theoretical criteria for the supernatural, these examples seem to display other commonalities. Our theoretical criteria for the nonnatural consisted of the following jointly necessary and sufficient conditions--the nonnatural must be nonphysical and not supervenient upon the physical, be nonspatiotemporal, be scientifically inexplicable in principle, and fail to behave in accordance with natural laws. Our practical approximations to these theoretical criteria combined with the commonalties in the 'clear-cut' examples provide the following jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for a likely candidate for a supernatural event: (1) the cause of the event cannot be identified as any known physical force or entity nor is it supervenient upon any known physical force or entity; (2) the cause of the event cannot be located in space and time; (3) the event defies all attempted scientific explanations thus far; (4) the event appears to violate well-established scientific laws (as distinguished from genuine laws of nature); (5) the event is highly improbable if it solely has known natural causes; and (6) the event exhibits apparently purposive or intelligent behavior. Any event meeting these criteria is a likely candidate for a supernatural event. Note that being a likely candidate for a supernatural event is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for actually being a supernatural event.
The first three conditions for a likely candidate for a supernatural event seem relatively straightforward. The fourth and fifth conditions are more complicated and related in fundamental way. Note that it would be a stronger approximation to our theoretical criteria to say that a likely candidate for the supernatural violates scientific laws rather than appears to violate scientific laws. However, even given known scientific laws, it isn't always clear what constitutes a violation of a scientific law. In theory, an event with a supernatural cause really would be physically impossible--given fixed initial conditions, genuine laws of nature, and only natural causal factors, a physical system would have to behave in a certain way. This is true even given physical indeterminism--some outcomes will be more probable than others, but some outcomes will be excluded altogether. For example, while the Heisenberg uncertainty principle allows the creation of short-lived subatomic particles out of nothing, the creation of a macroscopic physical object out of nothing would be a violation of a law of nature. A physically impossible event would be an event which behaved contrary to what would be predicted given initial conditions, genuine natural laws, and all relevant natural causal factors. Because we often cannot know the initial conditions and relevant natural causal factors involved in bringing about an event even assuming that scientific laws are genuine laws of nature, a physically impossible event may not involve a straightforward violation of a scientific law.
For example, a resurrection can be described as a localized reversal of entropy, something which is not explicitly ruled out by scientific laws. However, given likely initial conditions (e.g. an advanced state of decomposition) and all likely relevant natural factors (e.g. the destruction of most of the physical information about the body as it was before death due to decomposition and the lack of an advanced replication machine), some events may be so improbable that the chances of such events occurring even once given our background knowledge of the relevant natural causal factors produces astronomical odds. Consider Richard Dawkins' example of a statue waving its hand at you:
In the case of the marble statue, molecules in solid marble are continuously jostling against one another in random directions. The jostlings of the different molecules cancel one another out, so the whole hand of the statue stays still. But if, by sheer coincidence, all the molecules just happened to move in the same direction at the same moment, the hand would move. If they then all reversed direction at the same moment the hand would move back. In this way it is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen. The odds against such a coincidence are unimaginably great... The number is so large that the entire age of the universe so far is too short a time to write out all the noughts! It is theoretically possible for a cow to jump over the moon with something like the same improbability (Dawkins 1987, pp. 159-160).
Dawkins argues that if such an improbable event occurred we should regard it as a supernatural event "because all our experience and knowledge tells us that marble doesn't behave like that" (Dawkins 1987, p. 159). These events do not straightforwardly involve violations of scientific laws because, in practice, all relevant natural causal factors are not given. If they were all known, however, then a resurrection would almost certainly involve a violation of scientific laws. Because of the limitations of our knowledge, we will have to work with likely initial conditions and likely natural causal factors. Certain sets of causal factors will be more likely to obtain than others. But because we do not know that a scientific law necessarily is violated (e.g. a levitation could result from some other natural force counteracting the law of gravity, such as magnetic repulsion), for all practical purposes, an event appearing to violate scientific laws reduces to a highly improbable event given only known kinds of natural causes. Note that an event which is highly improbable given known natural causes is not necessarily an infrequent event. If supernatural causes are present, we would expect a greater frequency of events which would be very unlikely if only natural causes were present. In order for this distinction to hold, we must assume something like a propensity interpretation of probability instead of a relative frequency interpretation--that is, we must assume that the probability of an event refers to a propensity of a physical system to produce a given outcome.
The last condition for a likely candidate for a supernatural event--that the event exhibits apparently purposive or intelligent behavior--is fairly ambiguous. Note that this final condition is the only condition which cannot ultimately be derived from our theoretical criteria for the nonnatural. Purposive or intelligent behavior contrasts with the way natural phenomena are often characterized--as impersonal or the result of impersonal, unintelligent causes. Natural forces are typically characterized this way because the basic natural causes which constitute the subject matter of physics are impersonal and unintelligent and physics has given us the most reliable conclusions of all the sciences. Of course this condition cannot be derived from our theoretical conditions for the natural or supernatural precisely because some natural objects like animals or even heat-seeking missiles exhibit purposeful behavior. Purposeful or intelligent behavior is not necessarily a sign of supernatural causation because natural objects also exhibit it. But our consideration of the three examples of 'clear-cut' supernatural events all included this element and I think we can tentatively conclude that no supernatural event would have impersonal causes and thus purposeful behavior should be one of the conditions for a likely candidate for a supernatural event.
We can elaborate on what is required for an event to meet the final condition by providing examples of events which do meet it. However, to back up the claim that it is unlikely for an event with a natural cause to meet all of the criteria I have outlined for a likely candidate for a supernatural event, I will consider an example of an event meeting all six conditions. Imagine that a religious leader claimed that he would return to vindicate his followers' faith that he is the savior of the world a half century after his death. Imagine that this leader made arrangements with his followers that his corpse would be kept on display after his death. Anticipating his resurrection and with vast financial resources, the followers ensured that there would be a substantial media presence at the displayed tomb fifty years later to the day. While the journalists reluctantly appeared at the site, fulfilling a contract, none of them seriously believed that this resurrection would occur. The leader's followers also ensured that a DNA test would be performed on the spot that day to confirm the identity of the corpse.
An hour after the DNA test results confirmed the corpse's identity, and while television cameras rolled, the corpse spontaneously transformed into a likeness of the original man. The likeness of the leader then turned to the astonished reporters and cameramen and said "I will bring peace and harmony to the world and heal the sick". At the moment those words were spoken, every human being on the planet lost all symptoms of disease. The likeness of the leader then said "I will return in 6 months" and disappeared. An extensive worldwide UN-sponsored medical check-up confirmed that no examined individual on the planet had any trace of disease.
This would clearly be a likely candidate for a supernatural event. The cause of the transformation and universal healing could not be identified as any known physical or spatiotemporal cause, would be scientifically inexplicable, would appear to violate natural laws, would be highly improbable given only known kinds of natural causes, and the transformed corpse's communication and apparent healing powers would exhibit purposeful behavior. I contend that in the hypothetical example just given the well-documented events could not plausibly be regarded as events with solely natural causes.
Throughout human history, supernatural causes have been invoked to explain droughts, earthquakes, thunderstorms, comets, the spread of disease, mental illnesses, mystical experiences, the orbits of the planets, the origin of living things, and the origin of the world, among many other phenomena. As the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries flourished, appeals to supernatural causation ultimately gave way to successful scientific explanations of various phenomena in terms of natural causes. Ever since its inception, science has increasingly strengthened the plausibility of naturalism by providing informative accounts of a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes. The more science has progressed, the less room there has been for postulating supernatural causes within a scientific account of the world, and if past experience is any guide, the trend will continue well into the future. This trend has led many to conclude that there probably are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. As science explains more of the natural world around us, appeals to supernatural causation become less plausible.
Many philosophers and scientists have concluded that the best explanation for our ability to develop successful scientific explanations for such a wide range of phenomena in terms of natural causes is that there are no genuine instances of supernatural causation. Barbara Forrest, for example, describes naturalism as "a generalization of the cumulative results of scientific inquiry" (Forrest 2000, p. 19). In other words, the best explanation for the success of science is that naturalism is true. Given the proliferation of successful scientific explanations for phenomena, Forrest concludes that there is "an asymptotic decrease in the existential possibility of the supernatural to the point at which it is wholly negligible" (Forrest 2000, p. 25). If naturalism were false, there would be some phenomena that could not be explained solely in terms of natural causes. However, because science can explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes, there probably are no phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of natural causes. Therefore, naturalism is probably true.
This success of science argument rests on a crucial inductive premise--that we can infer that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes from the ability of science to explain all of the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered in terms of natural causes. Even if we accept the validity of this inductive inference, we still have to establish that all the uncontroversial phenomena we have encountered so far can be explained scientifically. Since there certainly are uncontroversial phenomena for which we lack successful scientific explanations--consider the prevalent gravitational influence of some unknown form of dark matter in the universe--I will defend a related but stronger argument for naturalism. This argument does not require us to have a successful scientific explanation for all well-established events in order to provide evidential support for naturalism.
A likely candidate for a supernatural event is not necessarily the result of supernatural causation given that meeting the criteria for a likely candidate is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for actually being a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is true, it does not necessarily follow that there will be no likely candidates for a supernatural event--it is possible, however unlikely, that a naturally-caused event would also meet the requirements for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. For example, suppose that a subject can induce out-of-body experiences at will in a laboratory setting. During several experimental trials, after this subject has induced an out-of-body experience, infrared cameras capture the outline of a person moving toward a bell which begins to ring in a room adjacent to the location of the subject's normal physical body. If such events occurred today, they would meet all of the criteria for a likely candidate for a supernatural event. Nevertheless, such events might be the result of entirely natural causes which could be understood only in terms of some future science not yet available to us. For example, one might postulate that human organisms possess natural astral bodies made of some unknown form of exotic matter which can detach from normal physical bodies in certain circumstances. In the absence of successful scientific explanations for such phenomena, however, uncontroversial instances of likely candidates for a supernatural event would make supernaturalism more likely to be true than not relative to a background scientific picture lacking natural categories for such events.
Regardless of such possibilities, if there are any events within nature that have supernatural causes, these events will be likely candidates for a supernatural event. Thus, if naturalism is false, there will be events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event. Even without a definitive set of criteria for identifying a supernatural event, we can see the beginnings of an argument for naturalism:
(P1) If naturalism is false then there are events which are likely candidates for a supernatural event.