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
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.
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:
- There are, currently living, no seven-legged horses.
- 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”:
- The phenomenon occurs by mechanisms that are beyond our current understanding of natural law.
- The phenomenon occurs by mechanisms that are beyond any possible human understanding of natural law.
- 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:
- to understand what is meant by the supernatural,
- to be shown reliable evidence that something, anything, supernatural has in fact ever happened,
- 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
- 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.
- July 7, 2014: Added the two figures and related discussion to the short version of the argument.