Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Supernatural

If there is a supernatural element to our universe (or beyond), how could we possibly know it?

1. I often use the term “intangible naturalism” as it could refer to something wholly natural that is beyond our current ability to understand - whether because of a lack of knowledge or because our brains are not made to understand it. An example would be electricity. Now it is considered a product of the natural universe, but perhaps sparks and electric currents were examples of “intangible naturalism” 1,000 years ago. Anything “supernatural” or “intangibly natural” at this current point in time are indistinguishable. Perhaps we will discover how the “intangibly natural” fits into the chain of cause and effect in the future. Perhaps we will not. Where would one decide to call something currently not understood supernatural? The transition from “intangibly natural” to “supernatural” is not one that we are equipped to make.

2. The only difference between natural and allegedly supernatural elements of existence is predictability. Once again, think of electricity. It is natural since it predictably acts certain ways given certain causal elements. But think about what it does. Things move without being pushed, visual sparks shoot out of our hands when we touch, lightning splits the sky - this is the stuff of fairy tales. Except that we can predict it.

3. Anything supernatural that acted predictably would not be supernatural! It would be natural. Another way to think about this besides predictability is connectedness. Everything natural is affected by other natural elements and affects other natural elements. It’s all a dance of cause and effect played out in motion through time. Supernatural elements are disconnected from this. If they were not, they would be natural. Evidence is based on the connections of cause and effect, so we cannot use any natural evidence to support supernatural conclusions. The supernatural will not obey our attempts to observe it or else it would be natural, therefore there is no way to prove whether supernatural elements exist or do not exist.

4. It makes no sense to complain about a lack of proof for the supernatural. However it also makes no sense to put forth specific supernatural explanations for anything as that would require many wholly arbitrary presuppositions about the supernatural. For instance if we say that “God cured my sickness”, then why not say “God created the memory in me and others that I was sick, but I never really was.” Why is the first more plausible than the second? If it’s because of less supernatural involvement then, as I’ve argued elsewhere, why not assume there is no supernatural involvement? Also, if we are describing supernatural in terms of quantity, where do we get those ideas of quantity? We get them from the natural world which the supernatural does not have to resemble in any way. Which is easier for God - to cure a cold or to create 1,000 new universes? So to argue a supernatural explanation, whether God or anything else, is to place many assumptions on to that supernatural hypothesis.

5. But once again, to say there is no such thing as the supernatural because of a lack of evidence is also problematic. Reliable evidence would make it natural!

Conclusion - there could be supernatural elements of our existence, but we can never know it. It would lie outside the realm of evidence, so we cannot complain of a lack of evidence for it. However, to put forth specific ideas about supernatural explanations, and to insist they are right, makes even less sense.


  1. So are you suggesting there is no such thing as "supernatural?" Are you saying that all things are natural, but some of these natural elements have not yet been understood, so we call them supernatural? Or, are you suggesting that our natural minds can't comprehend the supernatural as they don't succumb to our natural laws, so we shouldn't bother trying? Or are you suggesting something else I didn't catch?

  2. Great blog.

    I have always found it telling that the “supernatural” has an unwavering tendency to be found in areas that are distant in time and space, areas of very high complexity, and areas that have little chance of being empirically recorded. The beginning of the universe, the beginning of life, on Cleetus’ farm in rural Kansas, several thousand years ago, and in phenomena that are better described as correlational rather than causal.

    One thing that I have often wondered is how people who hold the supernatural as part of their world view explain this. From a naturalistic worldview, this pattern is expected. It makes sense for human being’s understanding to radiate out from simple to complex, near to far, recent to ancient; our evolutionary history has largely been one of a need to know type basis. Intangibly natural fits much better than supernatural.

    Upon closer inspection, the term supernatural is not very helpful or descriptive, unless one wishes to smuggle in a broader worldview along with it. I think it is especially difficult to let go of the ‘supernatural’ because of how difficult it is to grasp the entirety of what is natural. Science does such a good job telling us about our (relatively) immediate environment that it begins to seem like we have it all figured out and we are left wanting a bigger mystery. But the truth is that science has only figured out the smallest fraction of all that is natural – which is more than any other way can say.

  3. John,

    "So are you suggesting there is no such thing as "supernatural?"

    I'm saying I don't think we have the tools to be able to tell.

    "Are you saying that all things are natural, but some of these natural elements have not yet been understood, so we call them supernatural?"

    I think this is a trend throughout history. Many things thought to be supernatural yesterday are known to be natural today.

    "Or, are you suggesting that our natural minds can't comprehend the supernatural as they don't succumb to our natural laws, so we shouldn't bother trying?"

    I think the first part of this question is probably right on. As far as whether we should "bother trying" - I think that's a personal thing. I tend to put value in personal, mystical experience. Prayer, meditation, art, introspection, etc. I think people can come up with certain conclusions that way which are good, even beneficial. The problem is when these conclusions become overly dogmatic, and it's also problematic if they ignore our observations about the world - for example, "God told me there is a pink elephant in the next room..........(but there isn't!)" or at least others can't see it! ;)

    Of course some conclusions perhaps we can be dogmatic about. For instance - "Individual people have value." So perhaps, my argument with "dogma" is that it usually pertains to the speculative details (God is this, god is that, god literally did this and that at this time, etc.) rather than the deepest level which is the spirit (compassion, understanding, kindness, etc.).


    That last paragraph you wrote is fantastic.

    "Upon closer inspection, the term supernatural is not very helpful or descriptive, unless one wishes to smuggle in a broader worldview along with it."


    "But the truth is that science has only figured out the smallest fraction of all that is natural – which is more than any other way can say."

    Do you think that introspection teaches us about what is natural, albeit from a different perspective? Perhaps Buddhism could be seen as a "1st person science of the mind"? Or can art communicate deep truths that makes us wiser? This is probably getting off topic, as the discussion is more about explanations in a more objective sense, but it's interesting to think that spiritual wisdom is natural - a kind of science of how to live.

  4. I am a fan of introspection, but I have a hard time describing the knowledge that is gained. What are some of the truths about what is natural that has been gained through introspection? When we gain knowledge through introspection, is it during times of 1st person experience, or do we create a type of virtual 3rd person? Alright, this is going too far from the original blog post, we shall venture down this hole another day.

  5. Suppose we had complete understanding of the down to the quantum level. So at any given time, a neuroscientist could have a complete physical description of any and all brain states. Moreover, at any given time, the neuroscientist can predict with 100% accuracy what the physical state of a brain will be for, say, up to 5 minutes in the future.

    Now, suppose that the neuroscientists wants to run a test. At 2:00 pm he will set glass of water and a piece of toast before a test subject. He instructs the subject to look at the water and toast for 59 seconds and then, at 2:01 pm, report which item he wants to drink/eat. At 2:00 and 59.99999999 seconds the neuroscientists looks at his computer and predicts, "The patient will choose the toast." At 2:01 the subject picks up the water. The neuroscientist, positive that something has gone awry, rechecks his equipment and runs the test again. Same result. The subject confounds the neuroscientists prediction. The neuroscientists runs the same experiment 1000s of times with 100s of different subjects and every time fails to predict what the subject will do.

    It would seem here that this would be a case of not only a miracle (i.e. an event eluding a physical-causal explanation), put a predicable one too. That is, the subjects predictably choose that which is not predicted by the neuroscientists.

  6. First - I think it's highly problematic to think we could have a complete understanding of any system - particularly, the brain. There is no external reference point we can have access to. Basically, at what point would we look at something doing something we don't understand and still assume that we have 100% understanding of it?

    But even if we could, if the subject predictably chooses the opposite of what the scientist predicts - with complete precision, then it would have to reflect a naturalistic relationship. Naturalism doesn't require a perfect physical explanation - it just requires repeatability and predictability - but it does imply relationship, connectivity - and we are getting that here. When the scientist does one thing, something predictable happens as a result.

    I think that anything completely predictable would be, by definition, not a miracle.

    The scientist would publish a paper labeling the phenomena ("Brain Froo Froo") and then peers would test and repeat the results. It would go down as a new scientific theory - not unlike a fundamental force, which simply exists with great consistency.

  7. After peer review, an error has been detected and the paper revised. Apparently our team of neuroscientists mistakenly assigned a positive value in their theoretical equation where a negative value belongs. By simply changing this sign, the neuroscientists are now able to predict with near perfect success. Of course, their theory was just as good at predicting before, but the scientists had their hypothesis flipped around.