Miracles and the Supernatural

As with all such documents, a revision history is included at the bottom.

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. – Carl Sagan

Short Version

The “supernatural” is an incoherent concept. If it happens and is observable within the natural world, how can we consider it to be supernatural? It seems more coherent to say that our understanding of the natural simply isn’t big enough. Saying that something is supernatural or a miracle does not insulate the phenomenon from asking how it happened. For someone that has never seen any supernatural event that can reliably considered to be such (assuming a definition of “supernatural” can be found that isn’t incoherent), the claims of specific supernatural events, such as those from the bible, must be considered extraordinary claims, and thus they require extraordinary evidence for them to be plausible. It is not even clear that there is a meaningful, reliable way to tell the difference between the supernatural and the natural that we simply don’t yet understand. And even if such evidence exists, it is not immediately clear that the claimed meaning of these supernatural events corresponds to their actual implications.

To assist with understanding my arguments, I am including below a Venn diagram that illustrates the concepts involved, and a flowchart that shows how to evaluate whether a claimed supernatural phenomenon is in fact natural or not.

Figure 1: A Venn diagram illustrating the various concepts involved. The most important question is whether or not the green oval is an empty set or not. If we fail to answer that question, then I would settle for a reliable way to tell whether or not a given claim of the supernatural belong within the green oval or the largest blue oval.

Figure 1: A Venn diagram illustrating the various concepts involved. The most important question is whether or not the green oval is an empty set or not. If we fail to answer that question, then I would settle for a reliable way to tell whether or not a given claim of the supernatural belong within the green oval or the largest blue oval.

Figure 2: A flow chart for determining how to treat a particular claim of the supernatural. I see no point where there is a decision point that reasonably leads to the conclusion that a particular claim is in fact supernatural. I welcome any suggestions for improvements to this chart!

Figure 2: A flow chart for determining how to treat a particular claim of the supernatural. I see no point where there is a decision point that reasonably leads to the conclusion that a particular claim is in fact supernatural. I welcome any suggestions for improvements to this chart!

Full Version

Much of religion, mysticism, and magic centrally include the concepts of a part of reality that lies beyond the physical realm and of phenomena that violate physical law. Many words, each used in different contexts, are used to describe these concepts, including miracle, magic, spiritual, occult, and paranormal. I am not lumping these ideas together in terms of truth or in terms of meaning, for there is little, from a believer’s perspective, that connects extrasensory perception to the holy miracles of Jesus Christ. But I hope my readers will agree that they share this aspect: they purport to describe phenomena that are detectable within the natural world, but that rely on beings, causes, or mechanisms that are somehow beyond the natural world. They are, in short, supernatural phenomena. Understandably, from the perspective of converting me from atheism, holy miracles are the most relevant of these supernatural claims, so I will focus my discussion on those; however, the essence of my argument extends to all supernatural claims.

Here’s the problem. I cannot seem to grasp what it is that is meant, in any nonsuperficial sense, by the term “supernatural.” I have yet to run across a theistic religion that does not include explicit appeals to the supernatural, particularly in descriptions of miracles. It seems to me that if I am to come to adopt a religious position of any kind, I will have to come to accept that something supernatural has happened at some point in history. But to do that, I will have to understand what that word means. Unfortunately, my analysis of the word “supernatural” leaves me feeling as though it is an incoherent concept. This essay is my attempt to work through what this term could possibly mean, and the implications of this meaning for the possibility of my religious conversion.

We can only discuss supernatural phenomena that have discernible effects on the natural world

First, I think we need to limit our discussion of the supernatural to proposed phenomena that are at least in some way detectable in the natural world. If there is some sort of spirit realm, or heaven, or alternate plane of existence, but that alternate plane has no discernible effects on our natural world, then we frankly have nothing to go on in determining if the proposed phenomenon is real or not. If an angel sneezes but the sound of the sneeze stays within the heavenly realm without impacting our world, we have no way evaluate the claim that the angel sneezed. Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. And since there are an infinite number of things I could propose that might have happened in some supernatural realm disconnected from ours, and undoubtedly most of those didn’t in fact happen, and since we have no way to distinguish those that did from those that didn’t (even assuming that some of them did happen), we need to consider what our default position should be to any given claim. Just within the claim that an angel sneezed, I could claim that it was an angel named Brian, an angel named Beth, and angel named Bartholomew, and angel named Becky, and so on… and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the B’s. If we have no evidence that any angel sneezed (because there is no effect of that sneeze on our world), then it seems to me that even without specific evidence that Brian didn’t sneeze, it would be appropriate to have as our default position that he probably didn’t. The same can be said of any claim for which there is no way to validate it; without evidence, the appropriate stance is that it probably didn’t happen.

Fortunately, it seems to me that most usages of the terms “miracle” or “supernatural” are intended to describe phenomena that do result in an observable effect within the natural world. The claims of the miracles of Jesus, for example, were purportedly observable, and so are possible to discuss.

Supernatural phenomena cannot be logically impossible

Consider the two following claims:

  1. There are, currently living, no seven-legged horses.
  2. There are, currently living, no dead horses.

Both statements are true, but they are true for different reasons. A seven-legged horse is logically possible, perhaps due to a conjoined twin type of phenomenon, but there happen to be no living examples of this type of horse. A living dead horse, on the other hand, is logically impossible, because two of the descriptors, “living” and “dead,” are mutually contradictory. In order for a phenomenon to happen at all, whether it be supernatural or not, it cannot include logical contradictions. Now we have to be careful in claiming that something is a logical contradiction, because it is often tempting to attribute contradictions when there is in fact a way to render a seemingly-contradictory claim reconcilable. But I hope we can agree that the concept of the supernatural must not rely on logical contradictions in the same way that natural phenomena can’t. Fortunately, it seems to me that the terms “miracle” and “supernatural” are most commonly used to describe phenomena that are not logically impossible. For example, walking on water and turning water into wine do not contain logical contradictions, even if there is no known way to explain how they could happen.

What can we know about the mechanisms of supernatural phenomena?

When the mechanism of lightning wasn’t understood, it was considered to be a supernatural phenomenon, and in one particular culture was thought to be the handiwork of a god named Zeus. Before the science is known, lots of things look supernatural. This is a reflection of a general psychological tendency to attribute agency to phenomena that are not well-understood. The obvious, somewhat antagonistic observation that many people draw from this is, “There is no supernatural, only the natural that we haven’t yet figured out.” I think it’s premature to jump to that conclusion. It may end up being a reasonable conclusion, or even more the correct conclusion, but we’ve got some philosophical work ahead of us before we can really evaluate it. Noticing an anthropological trend about the origins of and eventual fate of supernaturalistic claims does not mean it is always so, or even more strongly, that it must be so. But noticing that trend can give us a framework within which to start to evaluate future claims.

It seems to me that there are three things that could be meant in a claim that a particular phenomenon is supernatural, or “beyond the natural”:

  1. The phenomenon occurs by mechanisms that are beyond our current understanding of natural law.
  2. The phenomenon occurs by mechanisms that are beyond any possible human understanding of natural law.
  3. The phenomenon doesn’t in fact occur by a mechanism at all.

If there are possibilities other than these three that I have overlooked, please let me know in the comments and I will try to address them.

It seems to me that the weakest type of supernatural claim would be one where an observable phenomenon doesn’t make sense from the perspective of currently-understood science, but for which a natural explanation that we simply don’t understand yet does exist. This would follow the pattern that I described above, where natural phenomena, like lightning are considered to be supernatural up until the point that a naturalistic explanation is uncovered. It is quite trivial to demonstrate that a particular claim meets at least these criteria… simply showing that a phenomenon is not explained by current science is sufficient. I hope you will agree, however, that this is a very weak claim, and would be insufficient to justify, for example, the claims of divinity concerning Jesus Christ.  As history has progressed, as our scientific understanding go the world has grown, the purview of this weak form of supernaturalism has kept shrinking. Surely something more than the limitations of our current knowledge must be meant by the term supernatural, unless we were to adopt an unconventional view that the nature of the supernatural is entirely dependent upon perception. Calling something of this sort supernatural is really nothing more than being lazy about looking for the real explanations. Therefore it seems to me that natural-but-not-yet-understood isn’t really what anyone means by “supernatural,” at least not in a sense that can support belief in a religion.

To explore the other two possibilities, we need to look a bit more at what I mean by the mechanism of a miracle. Let’s suppose that God does something ‘miraculous’. Does God know how he did it? Supposedly, he knows everything, so I think so. It seems very likely that there is a process of some sort, where the steps of that process determine whether God is doing miracle A or miracle B. If this were not the case, then it is hard to envision what exactly we might mean by the statement, “God performed a miracle.” If someone would like to argue that point, I would love to hear a coherent explanation that I can try to understand and reply to. But lacking that, I’m going to move on assuming that for a hypothetical miracle that God performs, there is some kind of process he followed and that he, at least, understands that process.

Let’s look at the origins of life as a prototypical miracle that most theists believe God performed. In fact, let’s narrow it down to the first cell (I am leaving aside the argument about whether the first life is necessarily a cell; there are good reasons to think that it wasn’t, but enough theists have argued from the perspective of the first life being a cell that I will be happy to argue on that basis for the moment). How did he create this cell? It is made up of component parts… biomolecules arranged in particular ways, and each molecule composed of atoms, also arranged in particular ways. Even under the umbrella of, “God did it,” there are a lot of scientific questions that can be reasonably asked about the mechanism he employed Did God take preexisting atoms and/or molecules and arrange them into the cell? If he did so, what was the mechanism for how he moved them? We know that objects move based on applied forces. What kind of forces did God use to nudge the atoms/molecules into the right places? Electrical? Gravitational? Something else? Or instead, did he create the atoms out of nothing? Well, scientists know one way for this to happen, known as vacuum fluctuations. Did God “do it” by manipulating the potential fields of the vacuum? If God were to be so kind as to repeat the process for us, we might even be able to devise experimental methods whereby we could watch the process and narrow down what he was doing.

But here’s the thing… if we in fact started to figure out the mechanism, then isn’t what we are doing really just expanding the concept of what is natural? Sure, maybe there is an intelligent agent behind the process, and if that intelligent agent were to cooperate we might even be able to directly detect the actions of that intelligent agent. But since there is a process that is being followed, it seems much more reasonable to call the process “natural” than “supernatural.”

You see, trying to answer any question by simply saying, “God did it,” shows an amazing lack of imagination, because it ignores all of the interesting ‘how’ questions, questions that are definitely within the realm of investigatability, if God would only repeat his performance where we could watch. Because there is a mechanism, it is a natural (i.e., describable) process, even if we couldn’t do it ourselves. Incidentally, being able to do it ourselves has nothing to with the parts of reality that we can understand scientifically. We can’t make a black hole, and yet they are perfectly natural.

Where does that leave us?

So here’s what I’m left with. I cannot conceive of what anyone actually means by the word “supernatural.” It seems to me that either “natural” hasn’t been defined to be big enough, or maybe “supernatural” is itself as self-contradictory as a living dead horse. I have a strong feeling that even on a purely linguistic level the concept of the supernatural is a euphemism for, “I don’t have enough curiosity to even want to figure out how it worked.”

But even if there’s a meaning for “supernatural” that I haven’t been able to successfully grasp, I think we’re left with a significant practical conundrum. Whatever you mean by “supernatural,” how could we even in principle reliably distinguish the supernatural from the natural that we haven’t yet figured out? Particularly if we place the emphasis in that question on the word, “reliably,” I cannot imagine a possible answer.

And yet, religions frequently claim that supernatural events, miracles, are demonstrations of the accuracy of their metaphysical claims. In order for this line of reasoning to work for me, I’m going to need:

  1. to understand what is meant by the supernatural,
  2. to be shown reliable evidence that something, anything, supernatural has in fact ever happened,
  3. to be shown that the specific claims of supernatural phenomena that are supposedly a basis for your particular religion are on sound evidentiary ground, and
  4. to be convinced that these supernatural events are sufficient to support the religious belief structure that you advocate.

I think I’ve shown in this essay that (1) is quite difficult. I have looked extensively for (2), and have always found the claims to be more plausibly explained by naturalistic phenomena. Given that, any specific claims for (3) have to meet extraordinarily high expectations in terms of evidence. If I claimed that I have a sister, the amount of evidence I would need to present would not be all that high because we have plenty of precedent of people who have sisters. If, however, I were to claim that I have a sister who is a fish, the amount of evidence I would need to present would be immensely higher, since we do not have any precedent whatsoever of humans with siblings that are other species, much less specifically fish. And finally, requirement (4) isn’t particularly straightforward either. For example, even if you were to convince me that every miracle described in the Christian bible were correct, I could see it as also plausible that the God described was actually malevolent and lied to the entire world about his motivations. In short, the argument from miracles is a much harder one than most theists recognize.

Revision History

  • July 7, 2014: Added the two figures and related discussion to the short version of the argument.

25 Comments

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  3. In response to your #1 stated need – to understand what is meant by the supernatural – Have you read “Miracles” by C.S. Lewis where he distinguishes between “Naturalists” and “Supernaturalists”? He defines “Naturalists” as those who believe that nothing exists except Nature and “Supernaturalists” as those who believe that there exists something else besides Nature. I would be curious to know whether you have read this particular work of his and your thoughts on his premise of Naturalists and Supernaturalists. Thanks!

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    • Why do we consider a supernatural causation to be super natural? If we can observe an effect, then the effect is within the natural world. If we can ask questions about how the effect occurred, then we are placing the cause also into the natural world. Here, “natural” just means investigable.

      Putting this another way, why can’t we consider God to be natural? It seems to me that “natural” might best be described as “that which actually happens.” If God then does something that is detectable in the natural world, then why isn’t that natural?

      Science has consistently pushed back the bounds of what can be considered supernatural by providing explanations for phenomena that were previously unexplainable. It seems to me that the term “supernatural” is really nothing more than an attempt to stop questioning, to place something beyond the realm where we can ask questions. I find the concept of the supernatural to be incoherent because I can ask a LOT of questions, and am very good at devising ways to address those questions. And there are plenty of scientists that are even better than I am. Labeling something as fundamentally beyond that which we can investigate seems to be woefully short-sighted.

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          • Okay, I think what I’m trying to figure out here is how you are using the word “nature” or “natural”. So far, I think you have defined natural as “describable, investigable, that which actually happens, and as something which exists.” I don’t think any of those contradict each other, but I want to make sure I’m understanding that is what you are meaning when you use the words “nature” or “natural”. So, is there any other way you would define those terms?

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            • Scientists, before that term became common, were known as natural philosophers, in that through investigation and reasoning, they endeavored to explore and understand the world around them. It seems to me that anything within the preview of investigation by natural philosophy is “natural.” That’s rather archaic, certainly, but I think it captures the essence.

              Ok, let’s think about this in terms of a Venn diagram. Draw a circle around everything that we can observe and is currently explainable. I think we would agree that everything within that circle is “natural.” If we don’t agree on that, let me know.

              Now what about what is outside that circle? Certainly there are things outside that circle that are explainable in principle, but for which we don’t YET have the science to explain. Those things should also be called natural, I think, just like lightning has always been natural, even before we as a society were able to explain it. That is, it seems to me that “natural” is a claim about more than just our current state of knowledge. So let’s draw a circle around everything that we can currently explain plus everything that is even theoretically explainable. What we call “natural” has to be at least that big.

              So what is left outside the circle we just drew? Certainly the self-contradictory is outside that circle (like the living dead horse from my essay). But I don’t think either of us would try to argue that self-contradictory things are “natural.” Again, correct me if I’m wrong.

              I think we would also agree that anything that has no effect on the observable world would be outside that circle. But since it has no effect on the observable world, then that cannot be what people mean by “miracles.”

              So what is left? Things that affect the observable world but that even in principle aren’t explainable? As I described with the origin of life example, trying to place something in that category cuts off very valid, very reasonable, and very explorable questions. We should be VERY careful about placing anything in that category. If there is a process, a mechanism by which something happens that is understandable by anyone, even God himself (were he to exist), is there really something unnatural about that? I don’t think so. The supernatural seems to me to be a subset of the unnatural (there are, linguistically, more things that are not natural than there are that are beyond natural, because anything beyond natural is by definition unnatural). But just because something linguistically makes sense doesn’t mean that it philosophically makes sense.

              My entire point is that I cannot grasp how something could be outside the circle we have drawn and also be logically coherent. And I suspect, though am stopping short of making this claim because I am willing to be convinced by a good explanation, that there is nothing outside that circle.

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              • Yes, I like your diagrams! The flow chart made me laugh even though I know you’re not really trying to be humorous, but it does, I think, clearly show at least your thought process. 🙂 Which is better than what I can seem to come up with right now! Honestly, I’ve been rolling these ideas around in my head almost 24/7 for the last week and I am finding it hard to put my thoughts into a coherent structure.
                The way I think you understand “Nature” is that it is everything that truly exists, and in that sense, then yes, we should be able to include God in “Nature”. But then I think that God created nature and God exists independently of His creation. I think of natural (material, physical) vs. spiritual. I also think of nature being temporal vs. eternal.
                There is a quote I keep coming back to from C.S Lewis’ “Miracles” where he states, “Man is a finite creature who has sense enough to know that he is finite; therefore, on any conceivable view, he finds himself dwarfed by reality as a whole. He is also a derivative being: the cause of his existence lies not in himself but (immediately) in his parents and (ultimately) either in the character of Nature as a whole or (if there is a God) in God. But there must be something, whether it be God or the totality of Nature, which exists in its own right or goes on ‘of its own accord’; not as the product of causes beyond itself, but simply because it does…On either view we are faced with something which existed before the human race appeared and will exist after the Earth has become uninhabitable; which is utterly independent of us though we are totally dependent on it; and which, through vast ranges of its being, has no relevance to our own hopes and fears.”
                This probably comes closest to where I am currently landing on this issue. And I know that you address some of this (causal relationship) in your next essay, and, whoa, that’s going to take some time for me to process! Definitely not light reading!
                Thanks again for your consideration of my feedback. I look forward to continuing these conversations.

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                • I would say that, at least for the flow chart, my tongue was at least in the neighborhood of my cheek. 🙂 I am, of course, looking for ways to expand the chart, and would definitely welcome proposals for how a decision that something is supernatural could fit in.

                  And I’m sorry that my posts have been so distracting to you.

                  I think that you are changing definitions of “natural” midstream in these comments. Yes, my definition of natural I think makes sense to include “God.” But I think you are then using a different definition when you say he created nature and is independent of it. That’s ok, I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t reading an intended equivalence there. You then use the term “spiritual” to provide a contrast to “natural.” I have another post in the wings concerning THAT word… about a secular understanding of the spiritual.

                  In the late 19th century, some physicists contended that light waves needed a medium to propagate through, the way that water waves require water and sound waves require air. They termed this medium, for which they had no direct evidence, the Luminiferous aether. In popular superstition, the aetherial realm was considered to be an alternate, parallel universe, and was where spirits were thought to reside. A more modern incarnation of this alternate realm can be seen in The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo puts on the One Ring.

                  Maxwell’s equations demonstrated that light could propagate through space without a medium, thereby removing the need to assume that the aether exists.

                  Let us, however, cast our minds back to the period before it was proven to be incorrect. In this scenario, we have an alternate realm that seems to be beyond the possibility of investigation. Where spirits live. And yet, by performing experiments on light itself, we could have devised ways to test hypotheses about the nature of the aether. This is a perfect example of something that is immaterial, and considered by many to be spiritual, but which, because it interacts with our observable world, we can nonetheless investigate. I have a very hard time considering the aether hypothesis to be anything other than a natural hypothesis. The key factor in my mind is not that it has something to do with the spiritual, but rather that it has everything to do with investigatability.

                  Does that make any sense?

                  Incidentally, I am working my way through the C. S. Lewis book that you recommended. I was cheering him on for his rigor for the first several pages. But there seemed to be a serious problem when he got to trying to define naturalism. He seems to require determinism to be part of naturalism, which is completely incorrect. I will definitely keep going with reading it however. Thank you again for the suggestion.

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                  • No need to apologize for the “distractions” – I am enjoying the challenge and the conversation! I feel that I am not able to accurately express myself as well as you are, which is why I appreciate your questions that draw me out a little more and cause me to think before responding.

                    You are correct that I was changing definitions of “natural” within my comments. That is exactly where I was struggling with how to respond. Because as I think of “nature” and “natural” more than just one concrete definition or meaning comes to mind, and that is exactly what I was expressing. Now, as soon as you tell me what an intended equivalence is, I will (possibly) be able to tell you whether you were reading one or not. 🙂

                    In your comments regarding the aether hypothesis, I believe that you are saying that if something is investigatable, then it must be natural and not spiritual at all. Is that correct?

                    One more question for you: do you believe that God can be either proved or disproved by science?

                    I’m glad you are reading “Miracles” – I anticipated that you would have some objections to some of Lewis’ positions, and I respect that you are agreeable to reading it anyway.

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                    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the conversation; I am as well. Thanks! And I think you’re doing quite a good job of expressing yourself!

                      By “intended equivalence,” I was just wondering if you were claiming that the usages for “natural” that you used were equivalent, or at least reconcilable.

                      Ok, on the issue of investigable implying natural and not spiritual, I agree on natural, but not so much on “not spiritual.” The thing is, I think there’s a secular way to understand spirituality, but that is probably a different essay. If you mean not supernatural, then I agree.

                      Can God be proved or disproved by science? Well, (and this is ALSO probably another essay), you have to be careful about the word “proof” in science. Science never proves anything… It can merely support it. It CAN disprove things, if they are specifically formulated. I would say that some specific formulations of God can be disproven, but the general idea cannot be. Can God be supported scientifically? I would probably say, “Only if he wants to be.” 😉

                      I’ll let you know if I have any further thoughts about “Miracles.”

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  4. CtA,
    Just discovered your site yesterday and really like what you’re doing. I think the project is very worthwhile.

    I just wanted to share a thought on the concepts of the supernatural and miracles. In the course of trying to nail down a definition there’s a danger that we can arrive at a description which falls outside the bounds of its everyday usage. It doesn’t matter what we think it should mean, what matters is that we’re able to communicate with others. I think that, as much as possible, we should try to stick with the most widespread interpretation because our words are useless unless others can understand them. As I understand it, the assumed properties of the “natural” are regularity, causation and observability. It is natural if it is empirically observable and can be described through the interaction of laws which describe the regularity of the universe. I think this second part is important and as far I understand your definition, it appears that you left this out. I would suggest that this goes against the everyday usage of the word.

    Under this understanding of “natural”, I then also perceive that “supernatural” is used to mean anything that is, or is the product of immaterial free agency – the immaterial would be anything that is not composed of matter-energy, and “free agency” is the ability to act independent of external causation. Again, this second part seems to be the key difference with what you have put forth in that it eliminates regularity and predictability. Jumping forward, miracles would then be the “immediate product of supernatural acts”. I say “immediate” because the miracle could be the establishment of natural laws, which makes subsequent products natural and not miraculous.

    I see that in a comment above you say that C.S. Lewis was incorrect to include determinism in the definition of the natural. That would seem to imply that you will reject my attempt to include regularity in the definition of the natural, so I’ll offer two thoughts in advance on this:
    1) I think the best definition is the one with which the most people agree. What is the better alternative?
    2) Something can be regular but not unilaterally deterministic. The observable distribution of quantum events are statistically regular and predictable but individual events are not.

    So that’s my take. It’s possible that my interpretation of the everyday usage of these words is the one that is in error, but we won’t know that unless we dialogue. Thanks for the opportunity to do so.

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    • I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you. My family is moving to a new state, and so life has been quite hectic. And thank you for your comments; I greatly appreciate input, especially thoughtful, critical input, such as yours.

      While I agree with the notion that keeping definitions as close to common usage is desirable, I think that is a secondary concern in philosophical discussions to ensuring that the words we use are well-defined and that the categories defined by those words are philosophically useful, as in they distinguish among concepts that are philosophically distinct.

      I agree that the second part of your definition of “natural,” which was, “can be described through the interaction of laws which describe the regularity of the universe,” is important. As long as we are not limiting the “laws which describe the regularity of the universe” to those laws that we currently have worked out. To use my earlier example, I think it would be philosophically useless to assert that lightning was indeed not a natural phenomenon before we understood it, but that at the point we had an explanation it became a natural phenomenon.

      The problem is that given an as-yet uncategorized phenomenon that has no current scientific explanation, how are we to determine whether it is fundamentally unexplainable (i.e., not natural) or if we simply don’t have the explanation yet? Determining that it is fundamentally unexplainable seems to me to be a prerequisite of labeling something to be supernatural, and yet that criterion is such a high bar to cross that I haven’t ever seen anything that crosses it.

      I have a couple of concerns about your definition of supernatural being something that is the product of immaterial free agency. The first is that your definitions of natural and supernatural don’t seem to span the range of possible phenomena. It is possible to envision (if not prove) a phenomenon that is not explainable by any possible science, but that does not result from immaterial free agency. Where would such a hypothetical phenomenon fall? I think common usage would suggest that it is still supernatural, and that also makes the philosophical categories more useful.

      My second concern with your definition is that the category, defined by being the product of immaterial free agency, does not seem to be usable in any specific case. If something is not composed of matter-energy, then what is it composed of? How are we to verify, from our own matter-energy perspective, that it exists? The invisible and the nonexistent are quite hard to experimentally distinguish. Even if we were to leap THAT hurdle, how would we determine that such a totally non-investigatable entity was acting either with or without external causation? It seems to me that your proposed definition specifies a category that we have no way to confidently place anything inside.

      On your later, numbered points, I agree that when possible, common usage should inform philosophical definitions, but think that in a philosophical discussion the definitions need to be nailed down more firmly than common usage allows. And secondly, I agree entirely with your comments on regularity (see my other essay on the argument from first cause for some related comments about quantum mechanics).

      Thank you for your feedback! I hope these responses make it a bit more clear why I have chosen to define the words the way that I have. If not, I’ll keep working on it!

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      • CtA,
        I agree that clarity is more important than consensus but I also see no reason why we might have to sacrifice one for the other. Let’s see if we can achieve both. Let me also note that I am not arguing for my own personal understanding of reality but I am rather trying to work through what the supernatural world means to those who accept its existence. I currently doubt that it exists, but I don’t think it is incoherent.

        The problem is that given an as-yet uncategorized phenomenon that has no current scientific explanation, how are we to determine whether it is fundamentally unexplainable (i.e., not natural) or if we simply don’t have the explanation yet?

        This is where regularity, or predictability, becomes important. For example, quantum entanglement is unexplained but still predictable. It could have something to do with a hidden variable, or a hidden dimension – we don’t know, but we see that it is not capricious. Whatever explanation we arrive at in the future will be scientific and natural. This is what led me into my definition of the supernatural.

        I agree that the second part of your definition of “natural,” which was, “can be described through the interaction of laws which describe the regularity of the universe,” is important. As long as we are not limiting the “laws which describe the regularity of the universe” to those laws that we currently have worked out.

        Agreed

        I have a couple of concerns about your definition of supernatural being something that is the product of immaterial free agency. The first is that your definitions of natural and supernatural don’t seem to span the range of possible phenomena. It is possible to envision (if not prove) a phenomenon that is not explainable by any possible science, but that does not result from immaterial free agency. Where would such a hypothetical phenomenon fall? I think common usage would suggest that it is still supernatural, and that also makes the philosophical categories more useful.

        I think it helps to have an example, so lets take karma. I can see that this doesn’t fit into either of my buckets (which probably exposes my western bias). Given our options, we would most likely classify it as supernatural but it isn’t free agency. OK, so maybe my definition isn’t exhaustive, but does that matter? If your goal is to simply understand what theists mean when they speak of the supernatural and miracles then, for me, the concept of immaterial free agency satisfies this even if it isn’t an exhaustive explication of the word “supernatural”.

        My second concern with your definition is that the category, defined by being the product of immaterial free agency, does not seem to be usable in any specific case. If something is not composed of matter-energy, then what is it composed of?

        Unknown – maybe it is a unity (i.e., consciousness) and isn’t composed of anything discreet. Regardless, I don’t see why it makes a difference so long as it is detectable.

        How are we to verify, from our own matter-energy perspective, that it exists? The invisible and the nonexistent are quite hard to experimentally distinguish.

        The invisible can influence that which we can detect, the non-existent cannot. Note that a rationalist epistemology is much more friendly than empiricism for the theistic worldview, so knowledge may include discovery via intuition and deduction. Under this perspective, the entity is not “non-investigatable”.

        Even if we were to leap THAT hurdle, how would we determine that such a totally non-investigatable entity was acting either with or without external causation?

        The uncaused nature of the agent is an ontological assumption which is largely rooted in an introspective conclusion that we are more than just our flesh and are representative of agency.

        It seems to me that your proposed definition specifies a category that we have no way to confidently place anything inside.

        Here’s all I’m trying to say. It seems that if we ask two questions:
        1) Is it made of matter-energy?
        2) Is it a free agent, or the immediate product of a free agent?
        …and if the answers are No and Yes, then I think you will have a very hard time finding people who disagree with the classification of supernatural. In debating theism, this should be sufficient to move the conversation forward.

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        • Am traveling, so please don’t take my short replies as being terse.

          Given that quantum entanglement was predicted before it was observed, I don’t understand what you could mean by saying that it is unexplained.

          On the need for “supernatural” plus “natural” to be exhaustive, I agree, it might not need to be. But I would like to be able to include things like your karma example in the supernatural category… I think that matches common usage pretty well. And it would also like to be able to draw as broad of conclusions as possible… If we are able to talk about the whole of supernaturalism without restricting ourselves to free agency, why not do so?

          One quick minor quibble… I have tried to avoid specifying matter/energy as the whole of the natural because there are other aspects of the observable universe (e.g., space-time curvature) that I think are also natural (see the last part of my essay on the argument from first cause for at least a reference to an example, if not a fully-described example). Similarly, I view the mind (another essay in my to-do list) as an emergent phenomenon of neurology… It isn’t matter energy per se, but it is an organization and characteristic activity of matter and energy. This is why I am defining “natural” by observability rather than by an enumeration of constituent components. In looking back at my last response, I think I wasn’t careful enough in my usage. Sorry.

          I agree with you concerning the invisible. I used that simple term for pith purposes. What I was trying to imply was undetectability, broadly speaking. It’s a lot like the Sagan example (from A Demon Haunted World) of the dragon in my garage.

          There is a lot in science that is invisible but not undetectable. Something as simple as ultraviolet light is an example of this. But here’s the key I was trying to get across. For something to meaningfully be said to exist, we need to be able to detect it in some way. In short, I don’t care much about the supernatural that doesn’t interact with our observable universe; because there are an infinite number of such things I could postulate without any way to distinguish them, I feel justified in disbelieving all of them. I am only concerned with the supernatural that DOES impact our world… that is, miracles… because those can actually be investigated. And if we can investigate them, I have a hard time calling them anything but natural.

          As to ontological assumptions about the agency of an immaterial cause, I have to revert to Occam’s razor. If we can demonstrate immaterial cause, then it seems a leap to me to attribute a higher level of causation… or to attribute the lack thereof. It seems undetermined.

          As to your two questions, I think the first is irrelevant because it isn’t comprehensive enough to specify what we mean by the natural, and I think the second is impossible to determine.

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      • Well, I’ve learned something new. Apparently the “hidden variables” option for explaining quantum entanglement has been essentially eliminated with recent work. I won’t say anything more on the topic because I’m clearly unqualified.

        When it comes to defining the supernatural, I was simply trying to say that there is a category of things which are unambiguously supernatural. When somebody refers to an immaterial agent, or its immediate byproduct, I don’t think we need to identify a specific definition of supernatural before we agree that it is supernatural. Agreement is all that is necessary for further discourse and you can then start asking them why they believe in the immaterial agent. I suspect that this covers the vast majority of the views that you’re interested in discussing.

        What I was trying to imply was undetectability, broadly speaking.

        I picked up on that, which is why I added the bit about rationalism and detection via intuition and deduction. As I see it, this is actually pretty key to a theistic worldview.

        For something to meaningfully be said to exist, we need to be able to detect it in some way. In short, I don’t care much about the supernatural that doesn’t interact with our observable universe; because there are an infinite number of such things I could postulate without any way to distinguish them, I feel justified in disbelieving all of them. I am only concerned with the supernatural that DOES impact our world… that is, miracles… because those can actually be investigated. And if we can investigate them, I have a hard time calling them anything but natural.

        I think you’ll get some pushback on this. Unless I am misunderstanding your claim, it appears that you are a priori eliminating non-empirical epistemologies. On what basis? You’re going to have to defend why our epistemology must be entirely empirical.

        As to ontological assumptions about the agency of an immaterial cause, I have to revert to Occam’s razor. If we can demonstrate immaterial cause, then it seems a leap to me to attribute a higher level of causation… or to attribute the lack thereof. It seems undetermined.

        I think Occam’s razor might be thrown right back at you (which sounds painful). If we introspectively identify uncaused agency in ourselves then the simplest explanation of an immaterial actor is that their agency is likewise uncaused. So, before we can suggest that immaterial agents are an unnecessary extrapolation we have to start by demonstrating that we ourselves have no immaterial agency.

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  5. Yeah, the part in the flow chart where you say, “you’re wrong”. If you make it all the way down that chart to that point then you have a situation where scientific law prevents the occurrence from being explained within the realm of science. To not recognize that fact really hurts the integrity of science and turns it into a field that is willing to engage in circular reasoning. Your diagram shows this exactly, so in making your point you did an amazing job of showing yourself the weakness, you just have to recognize it.

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    • Uhm, try reading the flowchart again. The situation is emphatically NOT one where “scientific law prevents the occurrence from being explained within the realm of science.” The situation is one where current scientific theories are insufficient to give such an explanation. Before quantum mechanics, black body radiation was an example. Before biological evolution, the origins of species was such an example. Both have been fully explained now. That is the type of situation that is being described.

      The intellectually arrogant position is the one that says that a phenomenon CANNOT be explained by natural means.

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