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.


  1. says

    So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, ‘supernatural’ just means ‘incomprehensible’ – unknowable by humans – something forever beyond human ken, something we will never be capable of understanding. As you note, different terms are used – the ‘ineffable’, the ‘mystery’, and so forth – but the basic idea is the same.

    Think about the difference between the notion of the ‘powerful alien’ (a staple of science fiction) and the notion of a ‘god’ in a religion. What’s the essential difference between them? In the stories, they both do amazing, astonishing things. But a powerful alien is (ultimately, eventually) comprehensible – often in the story humans are able to figure out some way of duplicating its powers, or interfering with them, etc. Gods, though, are beyond what humans can do, and there’s no point in trying to figure out why or how they do what they do.

    Of course, the concept of the ‘unknowable’ has… problems.

  2. Dave says

    I think this post by Richard Carrier about defining the supernatural would be of interest to anyone who enjoyed this post.

    Here’s the TL;DR version:
    “I argue ‘naturalism’ means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, ‘supernaturalism’ means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.”

  3. kraut says

    “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”

    What knowledge is he talking about? “Knowledge” that was written about in some compilations of Jewish and early christian writings of the claimed existence of one particular “supernatural” being with multiple identities that somehow then managed to interact with the non – supernatural world?
    Where is any evidence outside the framework of those books for that interaction?
    This supposed super natural being also competes with several thousand other supernatural beings for acknowledgement of unfalsifiable and evidence less existence. Which of the many dos he want to have acknowledged as the only true one and why?
    Or does he want to acknowledge any and all of the evidence less existence?

    The claim “supernatural” is simply a cop out.
    Anything that interacts with the material world leaves traces of those interactions. There are no traces of any of that except in the writings of scientific illiterate proto – philosophers who were looking for explanations of this world and its forces, and to find some reason for our existence, our sufferings and joys.

  4. Kevin says

    Of course, tokyotodd doesn’t really believe that the supernatural cannot be observed — which is the hallmark of the naturalism charge.

    Because it’s pretty clear that tokyotodd believes that the supernatural has been observed. And, if pressed, will quote chapter and verse of his favorite holy book to demonstrate that supernatural events have indeed occurred.

    The rest of us are skeptical of those claims.

  5. says

    Supernatural doesn’t mean ‘unobservable’. It just means – in practice, anyway – ‘incomprehensible’, ‘beyond human ken’. It’s a way of giving up trying to understand something.

    “The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the
    unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it.
    To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to
    the unknown, but never to the unknowable.”
    – Roger Zelazny, in Lord of Light

    “One man’s ‘magic’ is another man’s ‘engineering’. ‘Supernatural’ is a null word.” – Robert Heinlein

    “To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.” -Isaac Asimov

  6. thisisaturingtest says

    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!

    Actually, they have what they think is a perfectly natural explanation for that.

    “Anisotropic Synchrony Convention”
    I don’t really have the science to either adequately summarize or debunk it, but it appears, essentially, to be a rationalization, unsupported by any evidence other than its necessity, for the problem of why stars can emit light at light-speed, and still be millions of light years away in a universe only a few thousand years old. It’s just a fancy way of saying, “god can do anything he wants (or I can imagine, when necessary to hold on to my mythology)!” Magical thinking at its most sciency-sounding and finest.

    • says

      Giving the universe appearance of great age when it’s really just a few thousand years old — that’s defining god as a trickster. A god which would deliberately lie to its special creation.

      Any god that would go to such great lengths to lie to humans is a jerk who should not be worshiped.

      What possible motivation could there be for a god to behave in this manner? None whatsoever.

  7. Tony Hoffman says

    Ask tokyotodd to define supernaturalism. It’s amazing to me how few (basically none) of those who make his argument will actually offer a definition for the thing whose existence they are trying to defend.

  8. Emptyell says

    FWIW: My definition of the supernatural is that which is imaginable but not tangible. But this is a bit broad. To be notable as supernatural the intangibility has to be objectionable enough to some people that they deny it. Thus Sherlock Holmes is not notably supernatural since no one (as far as I know) claims he actually existed, but fairies and ghosts are since significant numbers of people insist that they are real.

    When the imaginable turns out to be tangible it is the product of science or art. Near instantaneous communication at great distances was once clearly in the realm of the supernatural. The many tangible (and often sublime and beautiful) images of we have of mythical beings are the products of painters, sculptors, film makers and so on. It seems to me those who want to make their beliefs real by wishing them so are just lazy and jealous.

  9. Glenn Borchardt says

    To know the difference between natural and supernatural, check out “The Ten Assumptions of Science.”

    • Emptyell says

      I took a look at the abstract and don’t see the connection aside from the usual hallmarks of a “theory of everything”. A peek at your Progressive Science Institute site set off major crank alarms with mentions of ether, vortexes and “beyond Newton and Einstein”.

      Do you guys have anything that provides demonstrably better predictions and/or explanations of actual observed phenomena than are provided by relativity and the standard model? BTW, making stuff up about before after and beyond the observable universe doesn’t count until we have some way to observe evidence of these things, unless you actually have viable experiments to detect such stuff.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Yeah, I had a quick look, and a lot of these “Ten Assumptions” sound like ordinary straw men designed to give the author a pretext for claiming some sort of superior knowledge. Didn’t see any reason for wasting a lot of time there. There’s certainly nothing there about the difference between natural and supernatural. I think this guy’s just spamming his book.

  10. Glenn Borchardt says

    Critical thinkers need to check their assumptions frequently. I began to do this when I had difficulty believing that the universe exploded from nothing—it sounded a lot like the assumption of creation, which forms the foundation of most supernatural belief. It certainly contradicted its opposite: conservation (Matter and the motion of matter can be neither created nor destroyed). To my surprise, the supernatural beliefs in modern physics did not stop there. For instance, Einstein himself promoted the assumption that fields were “immaterial.” Immaterialism, of course, is the opposite of the deterministic (scientific) assumption of materialism (The external world exists after the observer does not) or in other words, the universe consists of matter in motion. At the Progressive Science Institute, we believe instead that “there are material causes for all effects,” specifically that what happens to a portion of the universe is determined by the infinite matter in motion within and without. Among the achievements of this approach are the following:

    A. Proper use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to reject the mainstream prophecy that the universe will end in “heat death” (i.e., that the universe is an isolated system that will eventually rundown).
    B. Resolution of the following contradictions in modern physics:
    1. Twin paradox
    2. Time dilation
    3. Wave-particle duality
    4. Light as a matterless particle
    5. Gravity viewed as a pull
    6. The assumption that empty space could be curved (or that empty space or solid matter could exist, for that matter)

    At PSI, we feel that the Big Bang Theory and most of the associated elements of relativity will be replaced by Infinite Universe Theory within the next few decades. And, as we showed in our latest book, “Universal Cycle Theory: Neomechanics of the Hierarchically Infinite Universe,” we can use the data of modern science to do it. All we had to do was to eschew the supernatural elements of science to pursue the reality. It is true that all of this lies outside the mainstream. It therefore is unlikely to receive financial support from scientists who ride the “modern physics railway” and are not about to leave the track or share resources with those who might challenge their most entrenched beliefs. Above all, legislators are not likely to fund experiments that contradict their subtle or not so subtle belief in the supernatural.

    • Emptyell says

      I know enough physics to form the opinion that what you’re on about is a bunch of elaborated nonsense, but I don’t know enough for my opinion to actually matter other than to myself and perhaps a few friends.

      Looks to me like you’re tilting at windmills. Good luck with that.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Glenn,

      As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve worked hard to get my audience, and I’m not here to provide free publicity to those who have not earned an audience of their own. It’s clear you have a superficial and (shall we say) idiosyncratic understanding of the scientific topics you discuss, and as it has nothing at all to do with the rest of us or the world we inhabit, I’m afraid you’re going to have to find someplace else to discuss it. It’s off-topic and uninteresting here.

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