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Thread: What is a natural thing?

  1. #1 What is a natural thing? 
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    In all the scientific articles I have read I have never encountered one that contained a test to determine that the ideas offered have the quality of being "natural". It seems as though the concept of "natural" is purely philosophical rather than scientific. How do scientists know that their ideas are natural?


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  3. #2 Re: What is a natural thing? 
    Moderator Moderator TheBiologista's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    In all the scientific articles I have read I have never encountered one that contained a test to determine that the ideas offered have the quality of being "natural". It seems as though the concept of "natural" is purely philosophical rather than scientific. How do scientists know that their ideas are natural?
    Natural is not really a concept with any meaning in science. So it doesn't really come into consideration at all. It's more a concept used by advertisers to sell things, since "natural" and "good" tend to be synonymous in most people's minds. Or to suggest a thing is bad by labelling it "unnatural" when no specific harm can be ascribed to it.


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    There are some cases where it does make a difference, and usually that's to differentiate between human-caused effects and effects that happen in the absence of humans. For example, some animals may die from injuries gotten by traps left by human poachers, while others may die from being eaten by a predator. The latter would be considered a death by natural causes.

    But for the most part, Biologista is correct. When there is no need to differentiate between what humans did and what would happen without humans, the word isn't really used at all in science, precisely because it lacks a clear definition.
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    Universal Mind John Galt's Avatar
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    One important caveat to the excellent points made by TheBiologista and paralith relates to the very heart of the scientific method. The scientific method is methodologically naturalistic. That is, the presumption is made that 'things happen' according to a set of laws that can ultimately be discerned and described through approriate investigation: they are natural. There is no supernatural element present at any time.

    Of course this is generally taken as a given. In this instance it may also be using 'natural' in a slightly different sense from what you intended.
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt
    One important caveat to the excellent points made by TheBiologista and paralith relates to the very heart of the scientific method. The scientific method is methodologically naturalistic. That is, the presumption is made that 'things happen' according to a set of laws that can ultimately be discerned and described through approriate investigation: they are natural. There is no supernatural element present at any time.

    Of course this is generally taken as a given. In this instance it may also be using 'natural' in a slightly different sense from what you intended.
    This is quite correct, and it touches on the philosophical question of what supernatural is. If it something that is not, directly or indirectly, detectable in some empirical manner, then it is certainly not relevant to science or to our understanding of the universe. What does it matter if the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, or if we say He created the universe, if we can never detect His Noodly Influence?

    If a thing can be measured by any means at all, then it is within the realms of scientific enquirey and is natural. If not, then it might as well not exist.
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    Based on these responses I gather two ways by which "natural" is understood. One is that "natural" refers to that which can be understood. The second is that "natural" refers to that which can be investigated. If my understanding of your responses is correct, then I have follow up questions.

    Concerning the first meaning of "natural", do you mean that something is natural if it is currently understood, or do you mean something is natural if it is capable of being understood even if it is not currently understood?

    Concerning the second meaning of "natural", do you mean that something is natural if it is currently investigated, or do you mean something is natural if it is capable of being investigated even if it is not currently?

    Both of these meanings of the word deal more with our psychological state than with the thing being understood or investigated. Would this mean that an explanation or an entity can be natural for one person but not natural for another?
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Based on these responses I gather two ways by which "natural" is understood. One is that "natural" refers to that which can be understood. The second is that "natural" refers to that which can be investigated. If my understanding of your responses is correct, then I have follow up questions.

    Concerning the first meaning of "natural", do you mean that something is natural if it is currently understood, or do you mean something is natural if it is capable of being understood even if it is not currently understood?

    Concerning the second meaning of "natural", do you mean that something is natural if it is currently investigated, or do you mean something is natural if it is capable of being investigated even if it is not currently?

    Both of these meanings of the word deal more with our psychological state than with the thing being understood or investigated. Would this mean that an explanation or an entity can be natural for one person but not natural for another?
    I think natural is something that can be tested. String theory cannot be tested yet, but it is still logically possible to test it, possibly in the future, thus it is natural. The existence of an omnipotent God is not natural because it could manipulate the results of ANY test to suit its desires, and is therefore logically untestable.

    ID deals with an unnatural designer because they describe no limits to its abilities, either physical (could we invoke the designer to explain everything?) or moral (would the designer try to decieve us into believing in evolution?).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian

    I think natural is something that can be tested. String theory cannot be tested yet, but it is still logically possible to test it, possibly in the future, thus it is natural. The existence of an omnipotent God is not natural because it could manipulate the results of ANY test to suit its desires, and is therefore logically untestable.

    ID deals with an unnatural designer because they describe no limits to its abilities, either physical (could we invoke the designer to explain everything?) or moral (would the designer try to decieve us into believing in evolution?).
    I think I understand.

    You are saying that things in and of themselves do not contain the quality of "natural". Rather, "natural" is an adjective we use to describe those things of which the limits are known. Thus, for example, the world is natural insofar as we know its limits, and if we do not know the limits of the world then the world is not natural. Is my understanding correct?

    Edit: There are always things of which the limits are unknown. If science cannot be used to investigate those things of which the limits are unknown, then how do we ever learn the limits to those things? A general answer would suffice, but I am thinking right now of the speed of light specifically. There was a time when the limits of its speed was unknown, thus making it unnatural according to your description. However, we now know the limits to the speed of light. How did we discover its limits if not with science?
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    If you substitute consistent for natural that may help you to see how the word is used in science. By consistent we would mean follows a set or rules. We may, or may not know these rules, but we assume - for practical pruposes - that they are there and seek to define them.
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    Hence scientists have trouble discussing with creationists because these people [sic] have the tendency to change the rules at whim.
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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey
    Hence scientists have trouble discussing with creationists because these people [sic] have the tendency to change the rules at whim.
    Yep. IIRC Behe and his buddies tried to re-define science so that ID could be included... and their entire "theory" rests on a definition of information that information theorists disagree with.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian

    I think natural is something that can be tested. String theory cannot be tested yet, but it is still logically possible to test it, possibly in the future, thus it is natural. The existence of an omnipotent God is not natural because it could manipulate the results of ANY test to suit its desires, and is therefore logically untestable.

    ID deals with an unnatural designer because they describe no limits to its abilities, either physical (could we invoke the designer to explain everything?) or moral (would the designer try to decieve us into believing in evolution?).
    I think I understand.

    You are saying that things in and of themselves do not contain the quality of "natural". Rather, "natural" is an adjective we use to describe those things of which the limits are known. Thus, for example, the world is natural insofar as we know its limits, and if we do not know the limits of the world then the world is not natural. Is my understanding correct?

    Edit: There are always things of which the limits are unknown. If science cannot be used to investigate those things of which the limits are unknown, then how do we ever learn the limits to those things? A general answer would suffice, but I am thinking right now of the speed of light specifically. There was a time when the limits of its speed was unknown, thus making it unnatural according to your description. However, we now know the limits to the speed of light. How did we discover its limits if not with science?
    I think that's a good description (and possibly more descriptive than mine), I think that light would still be natural even if it had unlimited speed, because it would still be limited in other ways, for example it requires energy to create it, it reflects off mirrors while conserving its angle, etc. These would all constitute ways in which we could test its existence.

    Edit: also some things (like a god) are by definition unnatural as by definition they have no limits. I think one should consider definitions when talking about limits, by definition light has a certain set of limits, if it doesn't survive testing (by using those limits) it does not exist. So I'm saying limits have to be worked into definitions and hypotheses, and therefore one does not need to test those limits but the existence of what they are being applied to.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian

    I think that's a good description (and possibly more descriptive than mine), I think that light would still be natural even if it had unlimited speed, because it would still be limited in other ways, for example it requires energy to create it, it reflects off mirrors while conserving its angle, etc. These would all constitute ways in which we could test its existence.

    Edit: also some things (like a god) are by definition unnatural as by definition they have no limits. I think one should consider definitions when talking about limits, by definition light has a certain set of limits, if it doesn't survive testing (by using those limits) it does not exist. So I'm saying limits have to be worked into definitions and hypotheses, and therefore one does not need to test those limits but the existence of what they are being applied to.
    Concerning the speed of light: If it's speed was once supernatural, even if it's other qualities were natural, and science cannot investigate the supernatural, then how did we ever discover the limits to the speed of light?

    Concerning gods: If someone defined a god in such a way as to provide it with a limit, would that make a god a scientifically testable entity? Many philosophers, for example, have even argued that it is logically impossible or improbable that any being can be completely unlimited. If these arguments are logical with correct conclusions, then wouldn't these arguments give us reason to describe a god as a natural being?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If you substitute consistent for natural that may help you to see how the word is used in science. By consistent we would mean follows a set or rules. We may, or may not know these rules, but we assume - for practical pruposes - that they are there and seek to define them.
    People are not consistent. Are people natural?
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If you substitute consistent for natural that may help you to see how the word is used in science. By consistent we would mean follows a set or rules. We may, or may not know these rules, but we assume - for practical pruposes - that they are there and seek to define them.
    People are not consistent. Are people natural?
    People are consistent. It's just that, as with other intelligent animals, the "rules" are more complex.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Finger
    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    People are not consistent. Are people natural?
    People are consistent. It's just that, as with other intelligent animals, the "rules" are more complex.
    Could you clarify what you mean by "people are consistent" and provide some peer-reviewed articles to support your claim?
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Concerning the speed of light: If it's speed was once supernatural, even if it's other qualities were natural, and science cannot investigate the supernatural, then how did we ever discover the limits to the speed of light?
    I don't think the speed would be supernatural, the speed would be infinite (I may be modifying my views a bit here). If it were supernatural it would have a way to interfere with the experiment (without leaving any evidence), and therefore would need to do more than travel at an infinite velocity.

    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Concerning gods: If someone defined a god in such a way as to provide it with a limit, would that make a god a scientifically testable entity? Many philosophers, for example, have even argued that it is logically impossible or improbable that any being can be completely unlimited. If these arguments are logical with correct conclusions, then wouldn't these arguments give us reason to describe a god as a natural being?
    It depends on the limit. Logical limits wouldn't count, now that I think about it, since even if something was constrained by logical limits it would still be able to hide its existence. Unless you can find a way in which it is logically impossible for god to hide his existence by interfering with experiments.

    I suppose a problem for this view is that god could interfere with any experiment and could theoretically hide any phenomenon's existence.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Quote Originally Posted by Finger
    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    People are not consistent. Are people natural?
    People are consistent. It's just that, as with other intelligent animals, the "rules" are more complex.
    Could you clarify what you mean by "people are consistent" and provide some peer-reviewed articles to support your claim?
    You were attempting to falsify the definition of "natural" that was presented by Ophiolite by saying that people are not "consistent", and therefore implying (or at least appearing to imply) that humans do not always "follow the rules." I suppose it was a bit hasty of me to simply contradict you and I probably should have asked you to elaborate instead. So please do.
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    Of course people are consistent. They behave in certain ways in given circumstances. The range of options appears wide only because we are accustomed to behaviour falling within that range.

    If I say hello to someone on the street I expect them to respond somewhere along the spectrum of ignoring me, reacting to me with hostility, being indifferent, or greeting me warmly and enthusiastically.

    They do not respond by dropping their trousers and defecating; they do not respond by commiting suicide; they do not respond by turning to another passer by to propose marriage; they do not respond by telephoning the local radio station and announcing they have discovered a cure for cancer. Their reactions are consistent within a set of limits that can be defined through observation.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If I say hello to someone on the street I expect them to respond somewhere along the spectrum of ignoring me, reacting to me with hostility, being indifferent, or greeting me warmly and enthusiastically.
    That's a mighty broad definition of consistent you have there young fella.
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    no, it's actually a confined definition. You can deduce to within a nice specified range of responses how some one will react to a situation, and if people always react in that specified range, then their reactions are consistent with the model set before them.
    Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools, because they have to say something.
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    Quote Originally Posted by TruePath
    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If I say hello to someone on the street I expect them to respond somewhere along the spectrum of ignoring me, reacting to me with hostility, being indifferent, or greeting me warmly and enthusiastically.
    That's a mighty broad definition of consistent you have there young fella.
    Broadness is irrelevant. If a thing follows a rule which captures a narrow or wide range of possibilities, it is consistent.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Arcane_Mathematician
    no, it's actually a confined definition. You can deduce to within a nice specified range of responses how some one will react to a situation, and if people always react in that specified range, then their reactions are consistent with the model set before them.
    I strongly disagree. For example, let's say you ask me to rate the quality of an argument on a scale of 1-10. Today I give the argument a "3", tomorrow a "8", the day after a "1" and the day after that a "9", I am confident that you would not describe my opinion as being consistent even though I am always responding within a specified range.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian
    I don't think the speed would be supernatural, the speed would be infinite (I may be modifying my views a bit here). If it were supernatural it would have a way to interfere with the experiment (without leaving any evidence), and therefore would need to do more than travel at an infinite velocity.
    Since you may have modified your views a bit, would you please provide your modified understanding of what "natural" means within the context of scientific inquiry? I think I know what you mean but I don't want to presume.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If you substitute consistent for natural that may help you to see how the word is used in science. By consistent we would mean follows a set or rules.
    Quote Originally Posted by TheBiologista
    Broadness is irrelevant. If a thing follows a rule which captures a narrow or wide range of possibilities, it is consistent.
    This thread concerns the meaning of the word "natural" within the context of scientific inquiry. Therefore, my question is: If a thing is natural provided that it is consistent, and it is consistent provided that its behavior (or some synonym for behavior) falls within a range of possibilities, then what is the range of possibilities within which all things considered natural fall, and how do you know?
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    Quote Originally Posted by spuriousmonkey
    Hence scientists have trouble discussing with creationists because these people [sic] have the tendency to change the rules at whim.
    Are you saying Creationists are not consistent since they can't decide which rules to follow?
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Quote Originally Posted by Ophiolite
    If you substitute consistent for natural that may help you to see how the word is used in science. By consistent we would mean follows a set or rules.
    Quote Originally Posted by TheBiologista
    Broadness is irrelevant. If a thing follows a rule which captures a narrow or wide range of possibilities, it is consistent.
    This thread concerns the meaning of the word "natural" within the context of scientific inquiry. Therefore, my question is: If a thing is natural provided that it is consistent, and it is consistent provided that its behavior (or some synonym for behavior) falls within a range of possibilities, then what is the range of possibilities within which all things considered natural fall, and how do you know?
    We're mostly just playing with semantics now. As I said on the first page, natural doesn't really have any meaning in science.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian
    I don't think the speed would be supernatural, the speed would be infinite (I may be modifying my views a bit here). If it were supernatural it would have a way to interfere with the experiment (without leaving any evidence), and therefore would need to do more than travel at an infinite velocity.
    Since you may have modified your views a bit, would you please provide your modified understanding of what "natural" means within the context of scientific inquiry? I think I know what you mean but I don't want to presume.
    I'd say a natural thing is something that under at least one circumstance, cannot interfere with an experiment. A criminal can try to leave no evidence behind, but there will always be some evidence left behind, and under some circumstances (even possibly the circumstances of having much better technology than we do today) we will be able to test whether he/she committed the crime or not. No matter how good our technology is, an omnipotent god will still be able to leave no evidence behind, and therefore is supernatural.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian
    No matter how good our technology is, an omnipotent god will still be able to leave no evidence behind, and therefore is supernatural.
    The logic here is inconsistent. If the omnipotent god interacts with the natural world, and causes changes to that natural world, then the action itself (by definition) exists as a part of nature, and can ultimately be measured. It is nonsequitur to suggest that a change to nature can be done supernaturally. If nature changes, then the change was natural, and hence can be measured once technology advances enough to allow it (if it has not already done so).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Golkarian
    I'd say a natural thing is something that under at least one circumstance, cannot interfere with an experiment. A criminal can try to leave no evidence behind, but there will always be some evidence left behind, and under some circumstances (even possibly the circumstances of having much better technology than we do today) we will be able to test whether he/she committed the crime or not. No matter how good our technology is, an omnipotent god will still be able to leave no evidence behind, and therefore is supernatural.
    I find several problems with this understanding. The first problem concerns how we go about determining if a thing, under at least one circumstance, cannot interfere with an experiment. We cannot make this determination scientifically since it requires investigating a thing that might be capable of not interfering with experiments. In addition to this problem, scientists may currently be investigating some things that are supernatural but have yet to become aware of that one circumstance in which it cannot interfere with an experiment. Second, seemingly every entity is capable of not interfering with an experiment. For example, the Andromeda galaxy does not interfere with experiments on bacteria (as far as we know). The third problem with your description is that methodological naturalism would then mean that science can study only those things that can always be studied. But the only way to know if science can always be used to study a thing is to study it often, which would make methodological naturalism a question-begging exercise. Fourth, this would mean that if something was scientifically investigated 1000 times but avoided interfering with science even just one time, then the thing would be supernatural and therefore unscientific according the methodological naturalism despite the fact that it was successfully scientifically investigated 999 out of 1000 times.

    If "natural" means what you say, I cannot knowingly call myself a naturalist or methodological naturalist, and I fail to see any justification for requiring science to follow this rule.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ufcarazy
    If "natural" means what you say, I cannot knowingly call myself a naturalist or methodological naturalist, and I fail to see any justification for requiring science to follow this rule.
    Just as well it was a crap definition then. 8)
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