Science and the supernatural

In a comment over at my other blog, tokyotodd writes:

In order for a worldview to be capable of addressing questions about God or miracles, it must first posit some sort of methodology by which these objects (if they existed) could be detected and empirically verified. This requires knowledge of the objects being investigated, without which it would be impossible, or at least highly presumptuous, to make predictions about how we might expect to encounter or observe them. This would seem to rule out naturalism as a useful worldview, since it simply presupposes the nonexistence of the supernatural and therefore cannot really address questions about it (except to regard them as meaningless).

There are indeed difficulties involved in the investigation of the supernatural, but the scientific worldview isn’t one of them. Science (sometimes called “naturalism” in the same way evolution gets labelled  “Darwinism”) is entirely neutral on the question of natural vs. supernatural, and has routinely investigated phenomena that were popularly regarded as supernatural at the time. The problem with the supernatural is the vague and volatile definition of what “supernatural” is supposed to mean.

You frequently hear the canard that science “simply presupposes the nonexistence of the supernatural,” implying that there is some body of relevant evidence which science deliberately ignores. This is a slander against science, but it exposes one end of the spectrum of meanings along which the definition of “supernatural” flits and floats like some Heisenbergian electron. At various times, and depending on the need of the moment, the word “supernatural” can refer to phenomena that are actually manifest in the real world, that have a detectable impact on objective reality, and that lie properly within the domain of things that science ought to address.

It would make no sense to accuse science of “presupposing the nonexistence of the supernatural” if the supernatural were something entirely outside the domain of science. My personal favorite flavor of cheesecake lies outside the domain of science too, since it’s an entirely subjective preference, but no one would say that science presupposes the nonexistence of my personal preferences. Thus, in accusing science of ignoring the evidence for the supernatural, tokyotodd is implicitly telling us that the supernatural ought to be producing the sort of real-world evidence that science can properly render judgments about.

The problem, of course, is that when we go to look for this tangible, scientific evidence that ought to be there, what we find is inevitably more consistent with ordinary natural causes (not excluding such natural causes as ordinary superstition, autosuggestion, and sometimes outright fraud). The telltale evidence of a genuinely supernatural manifestation is consistently missing from the real world. At this point the definition of “supernatural” flits back to the other end of its spectrum of meanings, where “supernatural” means mystical, or even magical—inaccessible, in other words, to scientific investigation.

In fact, the chief observable characteristic of the supernatural is that it is invoked primarily to try and explain why the evidence fails to support some claim or other by the believer in the supernatural. A genuine phenomenon does not need to explain the absence of evidence for its own existence, because (being a genuine phenomenon) the evidence is not absent. If a visitor from another (spiritual?) dimension were to show up and conduct an interview with Larry King on network television, the evidence would be there and we could investigate it, supernatural or not. As far as science is concerned, it makes no difference whether the phenomenon is supernatural or is simply a hitherto unknown aspect of the natural. If the phenomenon is real, science can and will investigate it.

It is only when the evidence contradicts the supernaturalist that the mystical, ineffable appeal to “the supernatural” gets trotted out. We can see galaxies millions of light-years away even though the universe is only supposed to be 6,000-10,000 years old? It’s supernatural! We can take a helicopter up from the Mount of Olives and retrace the path Jesus allegedly took when he ascended into heaven, only to discover that there’s no celestial kingdom of God up there? It’s supernatural! We check out the story of person after person who was “healed” or who prayed for healing, only to find that there’s statistically no difference in the recovery rates whether you pray or not? Well, God works in mysterious ways, you can’t expect science to be able confirm the supernatural.

And yet science is accused of simply presupposing the non-existence of the supernatural?

No, scientific presuppositions have nothing to do with it. The problem is that the supernatural has a volatile and ambiguous definition that is little more than a superstitious rationalization for why the evidence consistently fails to confirm supernatural claims. Until supernaturalists come up with a consistent and coherent definition of what “the supernatural” is, without concocting some special-purpose epistemology designed to make us “know” things that aren’t consistent with actual evidence, the problem will continue to belong to them, and them alone.