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Sun, 03 Oct 2010

The Trouble with the Supernatural

In my earlier writings I've said that I am skeptical about the existence of the supernatural. However, I've also said that I think there is a supreme being of some kind, and that humans are not only bodies but also have spiritual qualities (see also here). These seemingly contradictory opinions may have confused some people. In this post I will spell out what I think about the supernatural.

"Supernatural" is a vague word. Its precise meaning is elusive. Philosophers might want to seek a precise definition of this word. However, when most people call something "supernatural," what they mean in practice is that the thing they are talking about will never be understood as part of nature.

To illustrate this point, I'm now going to do a thought experiment. (I don't think the scenario I'm about to describe ever will happen in real life. It's just a thought experiment.)

Think about leprechauns. Leprechauns are mythical beings described in Irish folklore. Leprechauns are widely regarded as supernatural beings, especially by those of us who don't believe in them. Today, scientifically inclined people don't think leprechauns are real.

Now here's the thought experiment. Imagine that some people believed in a type of supernatural being called a "meprechaun." Meprechauns are sort of like leprechauns; they allegedly wear green, guard pots of gold, and so forth. In our scenario, scientifically inclined people don't believe in meprechauns, but some less scientifically minded people do.

To continue our story, suppose that one day scientists discover that some meprechauns are real after all. If scientists were able to confirm that meprechauns are real, then what would the scientists do next? Presumably they would begin to study meprechauns: their anatomy, their geographic distribution, and so forth.

When scientists began to understand meprechauns a little bit, it's a good bet that people would start to think of meprechauns as part of nature. We would start to think of meprechauns as natural creatures, previously thought to be only subjects of folklore and mythology but now known to be real. Like a mythical city later proven real by archeologists, meprechauns would enter the roll call of things that used to be scoffed at but that now are established parts of the world.

Even if we found that meprechauns could violate known natural laws, we still would think of them as "natural" if they were demonstrably real and could somehow be made to fit into the conceptual framework of nature. Even if meprechauns didn't obey the known laws of nature, we would still tend to think of them as "natural" if we could learn something about the laws they did obey. Even if meprechaun behavior turned out to be lawless in some respects, we could simply say their behavior is unpredictable and try to describe it using probability theory. Then we could regard the meprechauns as part of nature, but obeying previously unknown laws of a probabilistic character. (After all, randomness and apparent lawlessness don't make a phenomenon supernatural. The observed behavior of quantum mechanical particles is unpredictable in some ways, but that doesn't make those particles supernatural.) With or without predictability, we would begin to feel that meprechauns aren't supernatural after all.

This concludes the thought experiment. The point of the experiment is not (I repeat, NOT) that leprechauns or their close cousins might exist. I don't believe that they do. (Professional skeptics, read the previous two sentences before raising your poison pens against me.) My only point is this: if we did confirm that some supposedly supernatural beings were real, and if we began to understand how they work, then we would very likely start to think of them as parts of nature.

If we start to call things "natural" when we begin to understand them, then labeling something as "supernatural" amounts to claiming we never will come to understand it as part of nature. If we might, at some future time, understand a thing as part of nature, then we aren't justified in claiming the thing is really, truly supernatural. It might only be a natural phenomenon that we haven't yet recognized as such.

I am skeptical of any claim that says we will never understand something in a naturalistic way, or will never be able to view something as part of nature. Given some item that is real but seems supernatural, how can we rule out the possibility that in 500 or 1000 years somebody will discover a way to think of it as part of nature? (Consider how much our understanding of things has changed in the last thousand years.) However, if we label something as definitely supernatural, we are implicitly claiming that we never will understand that thing in a way that makes it fit into our picture of nature. The act of classifying something as supernatural says more about our current inability to understand that thing than it says about the thing itself.

For this reason, I don't think we ever have rational justification for claiming that anything is supernatural. The most we can do is claim that certain things seem supernatural, and that we don't yet have natural explanations for them.

Note that I am not arguing that there is nothing supernatural. I don't know of any way to rule out the possibility that there is something we really can't understand as part of nature. I just don't think we ever have good reason to assume there is such a thing. As we already know, what seems supernatural today may seem quite natural tomorrow.

Now here's the other part of my argument - the part that the professional skeptics won't like.

When I say that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am NOT claiming that any particular item thought to be supernatural does not exist. Traditionally, people have labeled various controversial items as supernatural. Among these items are the supreme being and the human soul. My disbelief in the supernatural does not mean that I scoff at everything people call "supernatural." I just think that if these things turn out to be real, we eventually will begin to understand them in a naturalistic way. At least we shouldn't rule out this possibility by assuming that such things are truly supernatural.

This explains how I can argue for the reality of certain spiritual things while being a skeptic about the supernatural. My skepticism does not rule out the existence of a supreme being or of the spiritual qualities of human nature - though it does rule out certain crude conceptions of these things.

A final cautionary note: By saying that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am not - I repeat, not - suggesting that there is no knowledge besides scientific knowledge. When today's self-proclaimed "skeptics" say they don't believe in the supernatural, often they seem to mean that they only believe things that can be confirmed scientifically. Their position is not naturalism, but nonsense. There are other ways of finding knowledge besides science. Philosophy and art are a couple of obvious ones - and yes, philosophy is a rational subject and the arts do yield new knowledge of reality, no matter what you've heard. These other ways of knowing can yield real knowledge that is not part of science. However, the possibility of extrascientific knowledge is a different issue from the reality of the supernatural. It's possible to recognize that there is extrascientific knowledge whether or not you believe in the supernatural. Many "skeptics" who claim to be naturalists are actually wide-eyed believers in a naive view of science - not adherents of a truly naturalistic picture of the world.

posted at: 02:36 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry


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