There are two big arguments that believers in the supernatural make again and again. One is the “Explain that!” argument — the world is full of things for which there is currently no explanation, and therefore it’s reasonable to believe that those things might have supernatural causes. The other is the “You can’t prove anything!” argument — naturalists can’t definitively disprove the supernatural, and therefore it’s just as reasonable to believe in it as it to disbelieve.
In the most literal sense, these arguments would seem to be unanswerable. Yes, it’s certainly true that the existence of supernatural phenomena has not been disproven â it’s notoriously difficult, even impossible, to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And yes, of course the world is full of phenomenon for which we currently don’t have naturalistic explanations.
So in the narrowest sense, these arguments are true.
But they’re terrible arguments.
I want to talk about why.
Let’s look at the history of the world. Specifically, let’s look at the history of knowledge in the world.
When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands — tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more — of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one. Why the sun rises and sets; what thunder and lightning are; how and why illness happens and spreads; why people look like their parents; how people got to be here in the first placeâŠ all these things, and thousands more, were once explained by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have natural, physical explanations.
Natural explanations, I should point out, with mountains of solid, carefully collected, replicable evidence to support them.
Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one?
Of course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is the most obvious example. You can pick up any New Age magazine to find more.
But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?
Again, as far as I’m aware — none.
Which brings me to my point: the question of likelihood.
Given this pattern — thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations accurately supplanting supernatural ones, zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones — doesn’t it seem that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one?
Far, far more likely?
Like, several orders of magnitude more likely?
So when you’re looking at a phenomenon — consciousness, for instance, my current favorite example — that doesn’t currently have a good naturalistic explanation, you can of course argue “Explain that!” or “That doesn’t prove anything.” You can argue that scientists don’t really know what consciousness is, and therefore it could be some sort of metaphysical energy, and science can’t conclusively prove that it isn’t.
But I think it makes a lot more sense to look at the pattern — the overwhelming pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones by the thousands and more — and consider which kind of explanation is really more likely.