“Supernatural” is a Bad Excuse for Having no Evidence

I don’t understand the distinction between the natural and the supernatural: if a God does exist in some plane beyond us, surely God considers Itself to be natural; if science were to discover a reliable way to get information from the minds of people that have passed to the other side (i.e. died) the concept of a ghost would quickly be considered a natural concept. So, “supernatural” does not describe an event, it is an excuse. “Supernatural” is the buzz word for when you want to protect an idea from scrutiny, investigation and exploration.

Take a religious claim, like the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. In an earlier post I argued that history can only tell us what most likely happened, and it cannot tell us with high levels of confidence what did happen. The historical method, at best, can give a list of options in descending order of likelihood. But by calling Jesus’ resurrection “supernatural” we have made it completely immune from the normal investigation or, in fact, any investigation. We then have that idea so culturally ingrained on us that we don’t question its absurdity; we don’t challenge the idea that a human being came back to life is more likely than any other explanation.

Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time, recounts a similar story. He was at a conference on Cosmology, held at the Vatican organised by the Jesuits. This is the story he tells:

“At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the pope. He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”

– Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.

Again, this idea that it is supernatural (still a word without any meaning) had protected it from scientific investigation. Why, if the Pope honestly believes creation was the work of God, did the Pope not want people investigating it?

This is the problem I have with people throwing around the word “supernatural”, especially when they mean to use it to discredit science. Some theists assert that science assumes naturalism. If you don’t think that is an assertion people make, just see here where a blogger quotes a Harvard educated geneticist, who was in turn quoting Dinesh D’Souza. That’s three people asserting the same unsubstantiated words. Alternatively, if you don’t know what naturalism is, it is the view that the entire universe can be explained by entirely natural phenomena. But that seems to be a tautology, because as soon as something we understand something we consider it natural. So science is the process of making supernatural things natural; it is not the assumption that only natural things exist.

Here’s an example for you: can you think of something that was once considered supernatural but is now considered natural? Tides, seasons, harvest, crop failures, pestilence, disease, natural disasters etc. There are plenty. The pattern is that we started to understand them. This is the same point I made about ghosts and God at the start: if we can get to investigate them we consider them either natural or false by the end.

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15 thoughts on ““Supernatural” is a Bad Excuse for Having no Evidence”

    1. Thank you very much. Although, this isn’t me making it look easy; any time you argue with something Dinesh D’Souza says it is pretty easy.

  1. Brilliant. It’s always stricken me as odd that people assume there are some laws to supernatural phenomena (ghosts aren’t allowed to do anything they want, are they?). If there are laws, then what’s the difference? I think it all resides in the childish idea of “spooky” or “mysterious.” It goes along with the picture of scientists with funny hair and lots of smoking “potions.”

    1. I like that idea. It’s a childish remnant: not just from our own childhoods, but also the infancy of humanity (I’m thinking of the poem by Robert Browning – The Laboratory)

  2. When i use google translate “supernatural” to my local language. I was expecting the word to turn out as “unnatural behavior”, etc. As what being describe in TV and movie as ghost, dracula, or demon.

    it surprise me that it turn out to be word “ghaib”. The meaning of word are “unknown” or “unseen”, “gone”, “mysterious”. One of pillar of faith in Islam is “Believe in Ghaib”.

    In my meaning of “ghaib”,
    (1)(thing that are unknown) is thing that can not be understand/ known/ with proper knowledge or aid (2) Thing that can not be seen/heard by normal eye.

    Example, a bacteria is unknown, but when we learn biology, learn to use microscope, we know the bacteria exist.

    For people who doesn’t learn all this thing, bacteria is still unknown to them. From my understanding, supernatural can be exposed through aid, equipments, and knowledge.

    I don’t have a problem to believe in supernatural (ghaib).

    It not a rocket science to understand that “there are many thing that I don’t understand or I can not see”.

    My problem is “Do I have a right aids, equipment or knowledge to understand ghaib?”.

    Even, I have different view regarding “creation” or “Jesus’s miracle birth” with Catholic churches. I don’t think science can prove it except they can create another Marty McFly DeLorean DMC-12 and return back to the past…

    Even, in my religious view (at least Islamic view), it was a waste of time to understand thing that are suppose not to be understand.

    1. It’s pretty cool that in Malay (I assume, you like in Penang, yes?) the word “supernatural” just means “unknown”. Because, that means that in your language my post wouldn’t have been necessary.

      But in English the word “supernatural” means things that exist in a different way to the material world: ghosts, psychics, God… The word does not mean “unknown”, but instead “beyond our existence”.

      But it is exactly like you said about bacteria: the fact that it was once “supernatural” does not mean that it is now. And if it is “supernatural” now, it doesn’t mean it always will be. We may learn about it, and it may prove to be another natural thing.

      The issue with what science can demonstrate is beyond the scope of this post. But science is working with some very reliable tools.

      1. I believe in English, Super natural is a new word. It was being created by media and TV. It coming from two word “super” and “natural”.

        It was similar to word “Superman”, etc. A combination of “Super” and “Man”.

        In Malays history, there was black magic, ghosts, etc. We categories it as “khurafat” or “tahyul”. It was a similar meaning that being popularize by western media but the meaning are more on negative side.

        Tahyul meaning fantasy; imagination; delusion; superstition.
        Khurafat – meaning a belief or action that being created to justify the unknown thing.

        All this word are being borrowed from Arabic word that being blend in Malays language.

  3. As a scientist, I’m supremely irritated when the “supernatural” label is used as an excuse to eschew investigation and understanding.

    I’m also moderately irritated when other scientists assume “supernatural” is only used in this fashion and none other.

    1. To me, a large part of the problem is still that I don’t get the distinction.
      But I do feel that the word is thrown around as an excuse, and not an explanation.

      1. Oh, it’s certainly used as excuse, and that’s quite an irritation, like I said.

        But the legitimate distinction between natural and supernatural is just the same as any other class distinction, like matter and antimatter or negative and positive.

        1. The difference between positive and negative, and matter and antimatter is that you arbitrarily label one “positive” or “matter” and the other is simply its opposite.
          “Natural” is not an arbitrary label, it is a definitional one. And its opposite is not “supernatural”, it is “man made”. I don’t understand what “supernatural” could mean, particularly if, upon understanding it, it is natural.
          Unless you are happy for “natural” and “supernatural” to mean “understood” and “not understood”, but the words carry too much ethereal baggage to be that simple.

  4. I agree that semantically deconstructing the word shows that the “natural” understanding leaves supernatural seemingly meaningless.

    However metaphysical naturalism does mean something more specific (basically being synonymous with materialism/physicalism) – and is very often used in this context. Supernatural would then very simply mean something that isn’t merely spatiotemporal, and thus is correct and relevant to how it is normally used.

    Please elaborate if you still think there’s an issue, but I think this seems to me to be a fuss over nothing.

    1. Metaphysical (as in ‘not dependent on space and time’) is not a direct replacement of the the word “supernatural”. And assuming it is would lead to conversations where we just talk past each other. Thoughts are metaphysics and so is personality and so are concepts. But we can know things about these metaphysical things: there is evidence for personality because it is expressed; thoughts thoughts can be spoken; truth has a referent in the material. This is not the “reality” people are talking about when they say “supernatural”.

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