Physical Nature, The Natural and the Supernatural

This post is for clarifying my terminology. The label “terminology” does not carry any connotation of trivial or merely about language. Trying to be clear about what one means is really difficult but essential for philosophy or any other subject for that matter. In writing about evolution, I usually write from a perspective that the natural is physical nature. But this perspective needs to be expanded so that there is not the slightest suggestion that the mental and social are supernatural.

Physical nature is what is investigated by physics and the other sciences whose subject matter can coherently connected with the subject matter of physics. The social institution of science requires coherence for physical nature. Think of the principle of the uniformity of nature. If the laws and objects of other sciences such as chemistry, biology and psychology cannot be represented as laws and objects of physics it is assumed that amongst the fundamental physical laws there are laws for emergence. For instance, it would be assumed that cellular life arose from the objects of physics and chemistry. There is scientific research to vindicate this assumption. There is a coherent way of talking about emergence of life from the non-living. Laboratory production of a cell from molecules necessary for life is a scenario of biology being connected with physics and chemistry. As of this writing – Winter 2022 – there is no experimental evidence for any such way of talking. But a research program is all that is needed for coherence.

Assuming that the subject matter of biology is lawfully connected with that of physics and chemistry, the subject matter of the special biological field of origin of species, viz., evolutionary theory, is physical nature.

There are philosophical materialists who proclaim that the mental and a fortiori, the social are somehow reducible to physical nature. But the standard mind-body problems still stand in the way of a coherent account of such a reduction. Mind body problems also stand in the way of any interactionist accounts of the mind being coherently connected with the physical. Parallelism and epiphenomenalism are simply admissions that we have no coherent account of the physical, mental and social.

The mental and social are natural. Not only hominids but non-human animals now living had or have mental and social lives. Most of those who deny that there is any supernatural would not say that our mental and social dimensions make us more than natural. The broad sense of “nature” includes the physical, mental and social.

So, lack of a coherent way of talking of nature is no barrier against using the concept of “natural.” Similarly, lack of a coherent way of talking of the natural and supernatural should be no barrier against talking of the supernatural and the natural as constituting reality. I must add, though, that coherence between ways of talking, i.e., thinking, is not to be ignored. I submit that many of the classical philosophical problems are genuine intellectual anxieties about incoherence, e.g., how can we talk coherently about free will and causal regularity?

But what, if anything, is in the supernatural?

In my next post, I will argue that being morally bound -receiving a divine command is a sufficient condition for being supernatural.