You could call me a “materialist,” but I think that dilutes some of the point. I happily use materialist language because, let’s face it, the advocates of the supernatural, the spiritual, and the Platonic ideals simply don’t have the language it takes to describe the everyday world with a useful level of accuracy, precision, and detail the way materialistic science can. They have a hard enough time getting their stories straight when it comes to their alleged specialty. Still, being labeled a materialist risks catering to a dualist misconception: That people like me say the supernatural is categorically impossible.
To condense the point: My problem is not that I think the supernatural is categorically impossible. My problem is that dualist categorization doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t understand how or why scientific methodology should adapt to their asserted categories.
What inherent, objective properties do “non-material” things have that necessitates creating a special category for them?
That’s the big question I have for dualists. I see no reason to divide phenomena into “material” and “non-material.” I can’t think of any reason why we’d have to change or throw out scientific methodology for something I see as a junk drawer category. I think it’s a junk drawer category in part because its members are commonly defined by what they’re not, rather than what they are. I want a justification for the category’s existence. If I don’t understand why these things are lumped together and separated from all other phenomena, it means I don’t have a reason for looking at them differently.
If I had to come up with a common theme for the category, it’d be “common ignorance.” I think these things are lumped together because most people lack knowledge about them, not because they have common, inherent features. Human knowledge of them is circumstantial. Once upon a time, lightning was believed to be supernatural. It was a magical weapon gods hurled down from the heavens in anger or judgement. Now we know it’s made of electrons and we regard it the same as any other well-understood phenomenon. The only thing that changed about lightning was our level of knowledge about it.
An uglier theme that comes to mind includes debunked phenomena or phenomena with scientific explanations dualists find unsatisfying for whatever reason, positing their own. This version of “non-material” is a true junk drawer of ideas that have failed and ideas people want to rhetorically immunize against failure. It’s transparent special pleading. This particular version tends to result in a vicious rhetorical cycle I’d rather avoid: Numerous hypotheses are made unfalsifiable to provide ready excuses against scientific testing, rationalizing failures with reckless ad hoc hypotheses, for example. This typically has the side effect of making them useless for predicting results. These hypotheses are then lumped together under the label of “supernatural” and that label becomes associated with unfalsifiability. Casual skeptics buy into that association and preemptively dismiss “supernatural” claims as untestable, specifically because they’re “supernatural.” Opposite them, many dualists end up viewing untestability as a rhetorical advantage since it means they don’t have to deal with the risk of falsification and they can also use the gun-jumping rhetoric of those skeptics to depict the scientific community as a whole as closed-minded towards the category when it’s not so cut-and-dry.
The quickest way I can think of to break out of that cycle is to stop pretending I understand the category until a dualist defines it.
I write this post in part because I want other skeptics to think about these things and become more thoughtful as skeptics, rather than reduce the philosophy of science into easy slogans for quick dismissals. I also want dualists to think about their position so they can clearly express their ideas instead of rehearse arguments that assume I know what they believe. I’ve had far too many arguments with dualists who weren’t prepared to answer my most important questions, probably because they’re used to casual skeptics who humored their categorization scheme instead of questioning it.