Thursday, January 25, 2007

Richard Carrier and the Supernatrual

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Richard Carrier (of Secular Web fame) has written a pretty good article on the supernatural. I say it's "pretty good" he obviously put a lot into it, but it brings me back to one of my old soap boxes. Its not really about the supernaural. It's not Carriers fault, I think the concept itself has been degraded. He takes science and law to task for imposing their own definitions upon the term "supernatural," terms which do not regard the metaphysical. Since "supernatural" is a metaphysical term we should have a metaphysical definition. He also argues that such definitions should take account of the way people use such terms. He then loses us by defining the term in this way:

In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things. As I summarized
in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

Unfortunately, this is not what people mean when they say "supernatural" nor does it have anything to do with metaphysics. Its' not historically the way the term has been used. More important than metaphysics is theology, because this is primarily a theological term. While I agree that we should take the public use of a term into account, when we have a specialized term that is primarily the property of an academic discipline such as theology, we should consult the history of the term as well as the special to use to which it has been put.

The term suffers from a callsic symptom; he thinks "Super" as the prefix would make supernature the oppossite of nature. So sstarting from this jucture,the assuption that these diametrical oppossites is symptomatic of what has happened in the degrrading of the term in the first place. He then uses his own philosphical hobby horse to define "nature" and thus defining "supernature" (a term he doesn't use but the proper term none the less) is just a matter of advancing the oppossite concept as the definition. But "Super" doesn't mean oppossition nor does it mean oppossite, nor does it mean immaterail, way out, or imaginary. it means "above," "over" or "supirior." What this means for defining the term I'll get to in a moment.

Carrier goes on to illustrate the way the term is used,in his eyes, by talking about ferries and demons and the force in star wars without ever realizing that most of that is not defined as supernatural. I don't recall a line in the movie saying "use the force, Luke,... it's supernatural."

I have previously illustrated my own understanding of supernatural, which excludes this kind of phenomena, the ferries and so forth. That was published on this blog, so I'll repeat it here.

I have several pages about the supernatural on Doxa.


The problem in all these discussions about the supernatural is that we are dealing with a degraded concept. The notion of "Supernatural" is a misgnomer to begin with, because modern people construe the idea as another place, an actual location that you can go to. It's the unseen invisible world that is filled with ghosts and magic and so forth. It's in the realm where God can heaven are, we supposed. But what they don't realize is that this is the watered down, dilapidated concept. It's not even understood well by Christians because it was destroyed in the reformation.

The term "supernatural" comes from the term "supernauturalator" or "Supernature." Dyonisus the Areogopite (around 500ad) began talking of God as the supernaturalator, meaning that God's higher nature was the telos toward which our "lower" natures were drawn. St.Augustine has spoken of Divine nature as "Supernature" or the higher form of nature, but that is speaking of nature in you, like human nature and divine nature.

In the begining the issue was not a place, "the realm of the supernatural" but the issue was the nature inside a man. Human nature, vs. divine nature. The Sueprnatural was divine nature that drew the human up to to itself and vivified it with the power (dunimos) to live a holy life. This is the sort of thing Paul was talking about when he said "when I am weak I am strong." Or "we have this treasure in earthen vessels." The weak human nature which can't resist sin is transformed by the power of the Godly nature, through the spirit and becames strong enought to reisist sin, to be self sacraficing, to die for others ect ect.

This was the "supernatural" prior to the reformation. It was tied in wiht the sacraments and the mass. That's partly why the Protestants would rebel against it. St. Agustine (late 300s early 400s) spoke of Christians not hating rocks and trees, in answer to the assertion that Christians didn't like nature. But the extension of the natural world as "nature" didn't come unitl latter. The idea of "the natural" was at first bsed upon the idea of human nature, of biological life, life form life, that's what the Latin natura is about.

Prior to the reformation Christian theologians did not see the supernatural as a seperate reality, an invisible realm, or a place where God dwells that we can't see. After the reformation reality was biphercated. Now there came to be two realms, and they juxtopposed to each other. The realm of Supernature, is related to that of Grace, and is holy and sacred, but the early realm is "natural" and bad it's meyred in sin and natural urges.

But all of that represents a degraded form of thinking after goign throught he mill of the Protestant Catholic split. The basic split is charactorized by riationalism vs feideism. The Catholics are rationalists, because they believe God is motivated by divine puropose and wisdom, the Protestants were fiedeists, meaning that faith alone apart form reason because God is motived by will and sheer acceptation, the desire to prove soverignty above all else.

The rationalistic view offered a single harmony, a harmonous reality, governed by God's reasoned nature and orchastrated in a multiferious ways. This single reality continaed a two sided nature, or a mutli-facets, but it was one harmonious reality in wich human nature was regeuvinated thorugh divine nature. But the Protestant view left Christian theology with two waring reality, that which is removed from our empirical knowledge and that in which we live.

The true Christian view of the Sueprnatural doesn't see the two realms as juxtoppossed but as one reality in which the natural moves toward its' ground and end in divien nature. It is this tendency to move toward the ground and end, that produces miracles. A miracle is merely nature bending toward the higher aspect of Supernature.

but with the Protestant divinsion between divine sogerignty, acceptation and will motivating the universe, we mistake univocity and equivocity for nature and supernature. We think nature and supernature are not alike they are at war, so difference marks the relationship of the two. But to make the Suepernatural more avaible they stress some aspect of nature and put it over against the rest of nature and pretend that makes it sueprnatuarl, this is univocity, it's the same. So will and acceptation, soverigty, God has to prove that he is in charge, these are all aspects of univocity.

It's the natural extension of this biphercation that sets up two realms and sees nature as "everything that exits." or "all of mateiral reality" that sets up the atheist idea that supernatural is unnecessary and doesn't exist.

The medieval Christian doctrine of the supernatural has long been misconstrued as a dualistic denigration of nature, opposed to scientific thinking. The concept of supernature, however, is not a dualism in the sense of dinigrading nature or of pitting against each other the "alien" relams of spirit and matter. The Christian ontology of the supernatural bound together the realm of nature and the realm of Grace, immanent and transcendent, in a unity of creative wisdom and purpose, which gave theological significance to the natural world. While the doctrine of supernature was at times understood in a dualistic fashion, ultimately, the unity it offered played a positive role in the development of scientific thinking, because it made nature meaningful to the medieval mind. Its dissolution came, not because supernatural thinking opposed scientific thinking, but because culture came to value nature in a different manner, and the old valuation no longer served the purpose of scientific thinking. An understanding of the notion of supernature is essential to an understanding of the attitudes in Western culture toward nature, and to an understanding of the cultural transition to science as an epistemic authority.

The ontology of supernature assumes that the natural participates in the supernatural in an ordered relation of means and immediate ends, with reference to their ultimate ends. The supernatural is the ground and end of the natural; the realm of nature and the realm of Grace are bound up in a harmonious relation. The Ptolemaic system explained the physical lay-out of the universe, supernature explained its theological relation to God. The great chain of being separated the ranking of creatures in relation to creator. The supernatural ontology is, therefore, sperate from but related to cosmologies. This ontology stands behind most forms of pre-reformation theology, and it implies an exaltation of nature, rather than denigration. This talk of two realms seems to imply a dualism, yet, it is not a metaphysical dualism, not a dualism of opposition, but as Fairweather points out, "the essential structure of the Christian faith has a real two-sidedness about it, which may at first lead the unwary into dualism, and then to resolve ... an exclusive emphasis on one or the other severed elements of a complete Christianity...such a dissolution is inevitable once we lose our awareness of that ordered relation of the human and the divine, the immanent and the transcendent, which the Gospel assumes." Yet, it is this "two-sidedness" which leads unwary historians of into dualism.

In his famous 1967 article, "The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White argued that the Christian belief of the Imago Dei created "a dualism of man and nature;" "man shares in God's transcendence of nature." This notion replaced pagan animism, it removed the "sacred" from the natural world, and with it, inhibitions against exploiting nature. Moreover, by the 12th century, nature became a source of revelation through natural theology. In the Latin West, where action prevailed over contemplation, natural theology ceased to be the decoding of natural symbols of the divine and became instead an attempt to understand God through decerning the operation of creation. Western technology flourished, surpassing even that of Islamic culture (although they still led in theoretical pursuits). Thus, White argues, medieval theology did allow science to grow, but at the ultimate expense of the environment.

The insights of feminist scholarship, however, suggest an even more subtle argument for the denigration of nature. Feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruther, argued that there is an identification between the female and nature, the male and transcendence. Women have been disvalued historically through the association between female sexuality and the "baseness" of nature. Londa Schiebinger, calls attention to the fact that the Judeo-Christian cosmology placed women in a subordinate position. Gender was more fundamental than biological sex, and it was a cosmological principle, "...Men and women were carefully placed in the great chain of being--their positions were defined relative to plants, animals, and God." The subordination of women was predicated upon their position in nature. "Male" and "Female represented dualistic cosmological principles penetrating all of nature, principles of which sexual organs were only one aspect. One might suspect that the place of women on the great chain of being is indicative of the true status of nature itself in Christian ontology; an overt denigration of women indicates a covert denigration of nature.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, excellent comments on Richard Carrier's article! I personally think that more of his material should be answered because some of it is good but most of it is not. Well, in my opinion at least...