Monday, June 14, 2021

An argument against naturalism from the concept of the numinous

  1. If naturalism about our minds is true, then the correct account of intentionality is causal.

  2. On a causal account of intentionality, our possession of an irreducible concept is caused by something which falls under that concept.

  3. The concept of the numinous is irreducible.

  4. Therefore, if naturalism about our minds is true, our possession of the concept of the numinous is caused by something numinous. (1–3)

  5. If there is anything numinous, then naturalism in general is false.

  6. If naturalism about our minds is not true, then naturalism in general is false.

  7. So, naturalism in general is false. (4–6)

What do I mean by “the numinous”? Since I claim it to be irreducible, I had better not try to define it. But I can point to it by means of our experiences of the holy, the uncanny, etc.: see Rudolf Otto’s book on the holy.

I think the best objection to the argument is to say that numinous can be reduced to the negation of the natural. But that objection seems to me to be mistaken. Imagine some simple particle-like thing that doesn’t interact with anything else in a way that is governed by the laws of nature. That thing wouldn’t be numinous. Likewise, not all magic is numinous: quite a bit of the magic in the Harry Potter stories is not numinous at all (there is nothing numinous about the chocolate frogs).


SMatthewStolte said...

This seems a lot like Descartes’ Meditation III argument for the existence of God. Do you have sympathies with that argument?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think there is something to Descartes' argument, though as formulated by him there are holes.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think one can run the same argument with various normative properties. For it seems essential to naturalism that it not allow for our minds to be affected by normative properties.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Why can't a naturalist just think that "possession of a concept" is akin to understanding the rules of a language-game? Are we just saying that on Naturalism, there was never any real object to "point at" as samples for "the numinous", nor can we build that concept from simpler ones that we can "point at"? It's an interesting idea, but I worry that it could also be applied to magic or other such false ideas. And why couldn't it be that our deepest experiences of what we would call "the numinous" are just magnified versions of more natural things like terror at powerful events (e.g. tornadoes), valuing and safeguarding precious objects (and distinguishing them from ordinary stuff), etc.?

I think there's an argument to be made about norms as well, but I am very dubious about wording it in terms of how normative properties "causally affect our minds"..... That sounds like two or three different conceptual confusions tied together in a big knot! I personally am more inclined to just wonder where the norms came from.

All that being said, I do think this concern points to a real issue for how the first language users got some of their most basic concepts. I am inclined to agree with what you wrote about counter-factuals and vagueness in "Two Dozen (Or So) Arguments for God", and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since.

Brian Cutter said...

Really interesting. What about this definition? x is numinous iff it is a fitting object of N-type experiences. Here "N-type" experiences are (certain of) the experiences Otto talks about (which we can get an independent handle on by having the relevant experiences, and forming introspective concepts of them).

We might analyze the concept of beauty, funniness, etc. along similar lines (in terms of fitting ojbects of certain types of experiences).

Maybe it's hard for a naturalist to explain how we could have the irreducibly normative concept of "fitting," but if so, that's a problem for naturalism that goes far beyond the concept of the numinous.

Brian Cutter said...

On reflection: it's really interesting that there's a strong intuition that *there could be* something to which the Otto-like experiences are an appropriate/fitting response. (By contrast, I don't think I can make sense of the idea that there is something to which dizziness qualia are a fitting/appropriate response.) I'm not sure a naturalist can accept this intuition. Maybe this supports the possibility premise of the modal ontological argument.

IanS said...

Some things make me angry. But these things need not be angry themselves. Rather, anger is a word I apply to an internal state. Similarly, I think a naturalist could say something like this: There really is a feeling conventionally described by words like ‘experiencing the numinous’. It can be induced by suitable things and circumstances (‘the starry heavens above me …’). But these things need not be numinous themselves.

Some uncanny experiences have naturalistic explanations. Hold a flashlight to illuminate your face from below and you will look ‘spooky’. There is no mystery about this – it is literally a trick of the light. Our visual systems are adapted to light coming from above (as it usually does). When light comes from below, they have trouble making sense of it. Note that we can know intellectually what is happening, but still experience the spookiness. Note also, ‘spooky’ is a conventional description, but it need not imply the existence of spooks (as in ‘spirits of the dead’.)

SMatthewStolte said...

Ian, I think there are good responses to your objections.

The feeling of anger is not an irreducible concept (because it is not a concept), so our possession of the feeling of anger need not be caused by something “falling under anger” (whatever that might mean). Hence, this is not a counterexample to the second premise.

The concept of a ‘spook’, as you defined it, is not an irreducible concept either. For you gave its proper definition, and irreducible concepts cannot be given proper definitions.

Alexander R Pruss said...


We either do or do not have a concept of angerworthy. If we have such a concept, then my argument applies to it, and on a causal theory of concepts, we have to say that there really is something that is angerworthy. (Indeed, I think this is the case: injustice is angerworthy.) If we do not have such a concept, the argument doesn't apply.


That's a nice definition, and it nicely undercuts my argument. I am a bit suspicious of it, however for two reasons. The first is kind of vague: It seems to me that there is something of deeper importance in a numinous object than its merely being an appropriate trigger of a particular kind of experience.

The second is this argument. Either representationalism is or is not true of qualitative experience. If representationalism is true, then what makes an experience be of N-type is that it is an experience of something as numinous. But if if what it is for something to be numinous is for it to be an appropriate trigger of N-type experiences, then what makes an experience be of N-type is that it is an experience of something as an appropriate trigger of N-type experiences. And that fails to define the experience (due to circularity or underdetermination).

If representationalism is false, then probably Reid's story that the same qualia could be appropriately attached to other triggers is true. But then we cannot say that the numinous is the appropriate trigger of N-type experiences: for it is false to say that eating is numinous in any world where the appropriate trigger of N-type experiences is eating. So, probably, we want to specify your definition further: x is numinous iff it is the appropriate trigger of N-type experiences in humans. But if this is correct, then spiritually advanced aliens who don't know about humans wouldn't have a concept of the numinous, while I suspect they would.

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. I am OK with saying that some words we use do not have a concept corresponding to them. Conceptual analysis could end up showing that "magic" is like that.

2. I think Otto successfully refutes the idea that the numinous is a magnification of non-numinous things. For instance, the numinous can itself come in very mild degrees: a very minor curse already contains the numinous, while a massive tornado does not.

3. Not every language game corresponds to a concept. Consider the language game using the "tonk" connective: .

Alexander R Pruss said...


We definitely feel that N-type experiences have an intentional object, in a way in which we don't ordinarily feel about dizziness.

That said, it seems not plausible to me that dizziness has a proper trigger: maybe its proper trigger is an error state of our balance system. (When a computer prints an error message, that error message is typically something that has a proper trigger, though of course error messages themselves may be in error.)

Brian Cutter said...

Nice points. Whether or not numinousness can be *defined* in terms of the fitting object of N-type experiences, I think it's very plausible that there's a necessary connection here:

(1) Necessarily, N-type experiences are fitting/correct responses to numinous things.

(I.e., I don't think the Reidian point is right about N-type experiences, though it may be right about other kinds of experiences.) Now I wonder if we can argue against physicalism just from (1). Maybe like this: Either representationalism is true, or it's not. If representationalism is true, then the correct explanation for (1) is that N-type experiences essentially represent something as numinous. But experiential representation of numinousness can't be explained in physicalist-friendly terms (because it can't be explained along the usual tracking, or teleosemantic lines). If representationalism isn't true, then the correct explanation for (1) is just that it lies in the nature of N-type qualia that it's a fitting response to numinous things. But there is no *physical* state P such that it lies in the nature of P that it's a fitting response to numinous things. So N-type experiences aren't physical states.

(I guess this argument could be shortened to: If physicalism is true, then to have an N-type experience is to have a certain (perhaps extrinsic) physical property. But there is no physical property such that, necessarily, having it is a fitting response to the numinous. So, given (1), physicalism is false.)

The argument above just targets physicalism. But I think it might also provide evidence against naturalistic forms of dualism (e.g., Chalmers' dualism). On dualism, the basic psychophysical laws need to be such as to allow for N-type experiences. But given that N-type experiences are essentially fitting responses to the numinous, it's much more likely that the basic psychophysical laws would make provision for N-type experiences on supernaturalism than naturalism. (Supernatural entities are, intuitively, numinous - maybe that's even a good partial definition of what would make an entity supernatural.)

swaggerswaggmann said...

2 is false, read about emergence.
3 is a simple assessment, I say that it come from extrapolation of superior physical powers (our parents when we were children, predators...)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Why do you think there couldn't be a physical state that is a necessarily a fitting response only to a numinous state? Wouldn't most physicalists who aren't error theorists about fittingness say that a person's asserting "There is something numinous" is a physical state that is necessarily a fitting response only to a numinous state?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I've thought some more.

Assume naturalism. Datum: We find ourselves with a detector for a property--numinousness. But by assumption, that property is never actually exemplified, but the detector nonetheless sometimes triggers.

This is somewhat odd, but so far we have nothing impossible. We could put together a golden mountain detector. Being fallible like all detectors, it would sometimes triggers, even in the absence of any golden mountains. But one could give a fairly plausible story as to what makes it a golden mountain detector: maybe it has two subsystems, a gold detector and a mountain detector, and then it conjoins the outputs of the subsystems to give the final output. Or maybe it is a golden mountain detector because an engineer intended it to be such.

But it is specifically hard to see what it is about our numinousness detector that makes it be a numinousness detector. Numinous things never trigger it (because there are no numinous things), but other things trigger it. Numinousness is not a complex of properties each of which is unproblematically detected by subsystems of the detector. Nor is there any real or metaphorical engineer who designed it to detect numinous properties: there is no real engineer, because given naturalism, there is no designer; and the only metaphorical engineer is evolution, and there is no evolutionary selection for detection of numinous objects if there are no numinous objects.

Perhaps, though, what makes the numinousness detector a numinousness detector is that in nearby possible world with numinous beings, most of the time the detector is triggered by the numinous beings. But even that does not seem very likely. Those worlds, being nearby, would have all of the same kinds of ordinary non-numinous triggers for the detector that our world does. And being near our non-numinous world, presumably they would have very little numinousness in it, and so most triggers would still be mis-triggers.

Can the non-naturalist, on the other hand, explain the numinousness detector's status as a numinousness detector, given our experimental data that shows that the detector can easily be triggered by physical states? Yes, in multiple ways. There could be irreducible teleological properties that make the detector be such that fitting triggers are numinous. It could be that a designer gave us the detector with the intention that it detect numinousness. It could be that there are in fact exemplifiers of numinous properties, and statistically most triggerings of the detector are triggerings ultimately caused by or nomically correlated with numinous properties. Or it could be that we were intended by our designer or fitted by our nature for a different kind of environment, one where the physical triggers of numinousness were correlated with numinousness.

Hey, this is sounding like a nice short paper. Do you want to co-write it?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a possible way to start the paper. "An Internet search for _ghost detector_ finds a number of devices and mobile phone apps that are presumably effective at separating the credulous from their money. None of these devices are effective at detecting ghosts, since there are no ghosts. Presumably, the devices trigger on occasion, or else their buyers would be too disappointed, and their triggers are certain kinds of natural states, such as the 'variable magnetic emissions' that one Android app claims to be sensitive to. Given these facts, it appears inaccurate to label the devices or apps as _ghost detectors_, rather than detectors of the physical states that actually trigger their outputs. Though, perhaps, _if_ their designers are actually sincere but misguided, they do count as defective ghost detectors, much as some early 'flying machines' were unable to get off the ground."

Brian Cutter said...

I like it. And sure, I'm up for co-writing a short paper on this (assuming we decide the idea ultimately pans out). Let's be in touch!