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Excluding the Supernatural

37 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 September 2008 12:12AM

Followup toReductionism, Anthropomorphic Optimism

Occasionally, you hear someone claiming that creationism should not be taught in schools, especially not as a competing hypothesis to evolution, because creationism is a priori and automatically excluded from scientific consideration, in that it invokes the "supernatural".

So... is the idea here, that creationism could be true, but even if it were true, you wouldn't be allowed to teach it in science class, because science is only about "natural" things?

It seems clear enough that this notion stems from the desire to avoid a confrontation between science and religion.  You don't want to come right out and say that science doesn't teach Religious Claim X because X has been tested by the scientific method and found false.  So instead, you can... um... claim that science is excluding hypothesis X a priori.  That way you don't have to discuss how experiment has falsified X a posteriori.

Of course this plays right into the creationist claim that Intelligent Design isn't getting a fair shake from science—that science has prejudged the issue in favor of atheism, regardless of the evidence.  If science excluded Intelligent Design a priori, this would be a justified complaint!

But let's back up a moment.  The one comes to you and says:  "Intelligent Design is excluded from being science a priori, because it is 'supernatural', and science only deals in 'natural' explanations."

What exactly do they mean, "supernatural"?  Is any explanation invented by someone with the last name "Cohen" a supernatural one?  If we're going to summarily kick a set of hypotheses out of science, what is it that we're supposed to exclude?

By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's:  A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

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If You Demand Magic, Magic Won't Help

60 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 March 2008 06:10PM

Followup toExplaining vs. Explaining Away, Joy in the Merely Real

Most witches don't believe in gods.  They know that the gods exist, of course.  They even deal with them occasionally.  But they don't believe in them.  They know them too well.  It would be like believing in the postman.
        —Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Once upon a time, I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories—

And before anyone chides me for my "failure to understand what fantasy is about", let me say this:  I was raised in an SF&F household.  I have been reading fantasy stories since I was five years old.  I occasionally try to write fantasy stories.  And I am not the sort of person who tries to write for a genre without pondering its philosophy.  Where do you think story ideas come from?


I was pondering the philosophy of fantasy stories, and it occurred to me that if there were actually dragons in our world—if you could go down to the zoo, or even to a distant mountain, and meet a fire-breathing dragon—while nobody had ever actually seen a zebra, then our fantasy stories would contain zebras aplenty, while dragons would be unexciting.

Now that's what I call painting yourself into a corner, wot?  The grass is always greener on the other side of unreality.

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