A commentator recently made this observation:

When someone proclaims truth of the supernatural through philosophy and logic, I think of the people who follow their GPS into the lake.

Now I'm not making a judgment for or against supernatural claims in this - I'm just trying to understand (a) the assumptions in this observation; and (b) how we reason about such claims.

As I understand it we have four general ways of knowing things (epistomology):

  1. Truth by authority - this is true because a judge, a scientific authority, a person at the top of an organisation, or a well-recognised book/publication said it was true - and I don't need to question it further.

  2. Truth by reasoning (rationalism) - this is true because someone has given me a bunch of reasons, and I have weighed it in my head, and I can't come up with a competing set of reasons that knocks it down - so it is valid in my head.

  3. Truth by experiment (Empiricism) - this is true because I saw it or felt it. Further more I could repeat it, and if you repeat it, you will see the truth of it as well.

  4. Truth by message (testimonial evidence) - I heard this message from a person I trust, and I hold their observations of reality as true. You can choose to listen to their message as well.

Now applying this to the original comment - it seems that most observations of the supernatural come from the 4th category - truth my message (sometimes called Revelation).

The original comment seems to be saying that philosophy and logic lie in the first three spaces, Truth by authority, Truth by reasoning (rationalism) and Truth by experiment (Empiricism).

To me that seems limited. I think you can still reason about all four types of truth claims - but I'm open to the idea that philosophy may have particular boundaries. I understand the original poster was trying to say that supernatural claims are inherently outside the bounds of experimental truth.

My question is: Are philosophical claims grounded in the observations of the material world around us? (With regard to supernatural claims)

  • I feel the question has too many misperceptions to answer directly. For example, we do not know things (even relatively) from authority or by being told. I cannot untangle the final question in bold. I don't know anyone who argues for the supernatural on philosophical grounds - although there must be some who do. The definition of 'supernatural' is difficult but by most definitions I'd say the original poster you mention is right. – PeterJ Aug 4 '17 at 11:50
  • Thanks @Peter - could you expand that into how the question can be improved? – hawkeye Aug 4 '17 at 13:04
  • The first highlighted sentence has a typo which doesn't help. I think you need to define 'supernatural' and read a couple of dictionary entries on truth and knowing , since you list is an odd one. And finally, your question in bold is difficult because afaik philosophy makes no 'supernatural' claims. Philosophical claims certainly take account observations but I don't know what it would mean to say they are grounded in them. I think you have an interesting question but it's rather buried under the words. . – PeterJ Aug 4 '17 at 19:33
  • I think you have asked a good question, it's just that is a mighty big one, and I suspect people are trying to decide how they would start on it. One philosopher I can direct you to is John Findlay, and you can read about him on Wikipedia. Also, I do think your question is very at home in philosophy. – Gordon Aug 4 '17 at 23:57
  • Btw I would not start with John N. Findlay. I know enough to understand that what he says is important, but I would need some tutoring to understand exactly what he means. I am speaking of his own books. Findlay was also a Hegel scholar. – Gordon Aug 5 '17 at 0:13

The original statement is not neutral, I think it could be interpreted two ways: (1) that supernatural claims are not as reliable as claims one could arrive at through "philosophy and logic" or (2) "philosophy and logic" are necessarily insufficient grounds for arriving at supernatural claims, because of a fundamental "difference in substance" between supernatural claims and claims arrived at by "philosophy and logic".

But, to me, this is like putting the cart before the horse. Philosophy itself has often engaged with the question of what it is, and what kinds of claims can validly be made in the context of philosophy. In a way, the original statement seems to deny the validity of some debates in philosophy itself, which concern the validity of metaphysical claims. Indeed, there are whole groups of philosophers who have based the practice of their philosophy on the assumption that metaphysical claims necessarily dissolve into nonsense, because they are unverifiable. And yet, in effect, these philosophers (for example A. J. Ayer) were making their own kind of (negative) metaphysical claim, that "there is no valid metaphysical claim". But how do they ground this view? Perhaps simply through preference for a certain kind of philosophy, or "taste".

In answer to your own question, I am not sure this can be answered except from the perspective of different philosophical positions on metaphysics, since that is actually the kind of question they might debate. What I am saying is perhaps your question cannot be answered in a general way, since I take it that your question is one that could validly be answered only from the perspective of one or another position in a particular area of debate in philosophy, like ontology and epistemology.

My own answer would be that philosophers would tend to answer your question with the background understanding that it is either possible or not possible to make meaningful propositions about metaphysics. They will also differ on their method or style of reasoning to get to their position in answer to your question.

So because the original statement and your question cannot necessarily be assumed to be neutral, perhaps neither one can be answered in a categorical way that is genuinely helpful. I hope this gives you some material to understand my approach to your question, and is not further confusing or beside the point of your original query.

  • "philosophers would tend to answer your question with the background understanding that it is either possible or not possible to make meaningful propositions about metaphysics" - great thanks. – hawkeye Aug 6 '17 at 10:04

The original post here is a tweet of mine, and the 140 character limit did get in the way of clarity.

I have recently interacted with people (on twitter) who claim that their beliefs about the supernatural can be fully supported with the tools of philosophy and logic.

My intent was indeed "philosophy and logic" are necessarily insufficient grounds for arriving at supernatural claims" but as it was a Tweet, I had hoped for something a bit more snarky. (Bad habit, I know.)

As for the following the GPS into the lake, (something that has actually happened) well, when one reaches the shores of reality and your tools are urging you on, it's a good time to pause and question if something, somewhere along the way, has gone wrong.

  • But you don't know where the shores of reality are! Maybe your logic is trustworthy. Maybe the lake is exactly the way to go. The problem here is the word 'supernatural', It is perfectly possible that ghosts, fairies and telekenesis and so forth are natural phenomena. As I say, I have never found any supernatural claims in philosophy or logic. I'm pretty sure that philosophy and logic would reject such claims on the grounds that all phenomena must be natural - even if they don't seem to be. This would be my view. – PeterJ Aug 8 '17 at 12:17

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