This month's Scientific American has a great "Skeptic" column by Michael Shermer: At the Boundary of Knowledge: Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
Shermer cites physicist Sean Carroll's book (The Big Picture, which I enjoyed) in this passage.
Take our understanding of particles and forces, which Carroll says “seems indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Haha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism.’”
Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”
Excellent points. After thousands of years of recorded human history, there is precisely zero solid demonstrable evidence of supernatural psychic powers. Which means, the chance is extremely close to zero that such powers exist.
In his next concluding passages, Shermer also demolishes the likelihood of a supernatural God.
What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?
It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.
When I believed in a divine power that existed above and beyond the bounds of the natural world, arguments like these threatened my spiritual sensibilities.
Now, I worship at the Altar of Reality. So I'm attracted to whatever brings me closer to what is real, even if these truths are difficult to accept. I'd prefer that a loving God was waiting to embrace my immortal soul after I die.
But what I prefer and what is real outside of my preferring brain often are very different things. We've got to choose which to pay the most attention to.
"What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer. If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?"
Well, why should we detect it with our instruments? The scientist here seems to assume that whatever the supernatural cure could consist of, it must (it is obliged to) pass through our reality in order to have effect, that is, in order to obtain. But this is just his idea.
In fact he says "how might they interact with the known natural forces? " That's the point. We can't be completely sure that they have to interact with our Universe's laws in order to have an effect on the person who has a cancer. The healing might take place directly on the disease (taken as an entity, a being), skipping our physics laws.
Why on earth should God need to interact with our physical laws to be able to do anything? This scientist seems to me to be looking at the world in the only possible way he may look at it, that is, from a scientific point of view. Alas, that is all he can do.
Posted by: Mesmerized by sirens | September 20, 2016 at 08:18 AM
...And so, "Mesmerized by sirens" does what all other religious apologists do, which is to say that god (or whatever mystical, mythical being they talk about. And yes, I did not capitalize "god" on purpose) doesn't have to interact with our physical world to make things happen. However, these "things" happen to be ALL physical, meaning that the affect us, therefore must be physical. Mesmerized gives the example of "The healing might take place directly on the disease (taken as an entity, a being), skipping our physics laws". Um, no, because the disease IS physical, therefore the healing MUST take place within the physical laws. And, most people who praise god for being cured of cancer (or any other disease) tend to say things like "After months of chemo, God granted me more life." No, it was the chemo that did it, if anything...
And, I'd like to ask Mesmerized, how can you account for all the people with cancer who are NOT healed, no matter how much people may pray for them? I guess god does not care that much for most people.
Posted by: Eric | September 20, 2016 at 03:54 PM
I'll start answering to your last question Eric. I do not know why God (or god, that's not offensive at all for me to write the word that way) doesn't reply to his/her prayers. This is is unscrutable. I don't believe that the aim of prayers should be that of obtaining a material benefit (bread, clothes, wealth, a beautiful wife, etc) so i am the least skilled person to give you the answer you asked of me.
As for the first question, you say "Um, no, because the disease IS physical, therefore the healing MUST take place within the physical laws".
Here, you seem to accept what is termed "physicalism" - that is, that the whole of Reality is physical and consists in material things. I do not agree with this view. God is certainly able to cure that disease without having to pass through our physcial laws. What makes you believe that our physical laws are the FIRST step or level of existence?
God can cure that disease using his Will. The will of God comes before the physical laws.
Maybe you may deem that what i am writing here is a fairy-tale but it is not so. Several philosophers have argued that as well. Try to read the later writing of Schelling for instance, to get an idea.
Also, suppose that God exists. You certainly can't perceive it now, so why do you think you should be entitled to perceive him while he is curing that disease? You seem to think that when he is manipulating the atoms and molecules of that cancer you should notice his work. Why do you think so?
Posted by: Cataclibrarian | September 21, 2016 at 03:00 AM
Shermer sounds very certain of himself. I respect that and admire it but I wonder how many other people have pronounced truths they thought wpoukd stand the test of time only for them to be later found wrong. This doesn't mean Shermer is wrong, he may not be, but who knows what the future will hold?
We are learning things all the time. I remember being a kid and being told that you only get so many brain cells and that once you're brain damaged, that's that. Now we are constantly learning about how plastic the brain is, how it is much more resilient than we ever imagined.
I don't expect there is a god or an afterlife but I think of all the things we long didn't know and have to wonder. Is that a cop out on my part? Maybe. I just am less comfortable with my own certainty.
Posted by: Mike Caffery | September 27, 2016 at 12:32 PM
Mike, I think we need to be just as stern in not believing as they are in believing in god.
Posted by: Neon | September 30, 2016 at 12:48 PM