Is there a supernatural realm?

Watching a debate between Matt Dillahunty and Mike Licona on whether Jesus was raised from the dead was a weird experience. Licona’s approach relied heavily on the supernatural is real therefore literally anything could have happened. And his defence for the supernatural also helped a lot in defining the supernatural. And it is to that end, I come to you today. This post will explain how Licona doesn’t seem to distinguish between what he doesn’t know and the supernatural.

Licona’s argument is that weird stuff happens and can be confirmed independently to have happened. This weird stuff cannot be explained by the natural and therefore it is supernatural and therefore if a few people are convinced Jesus was raised from the dead then suddenly it’s plausible and explanatory.

There’s one element I’d like to clear up first. Part of Licona’s defence of Jesus being raised from the dead is that some alternative hypotheses don’t hold up. For example, although the ‘Group Hallucination’ argument can account for all the facts, it fails the plausibility test. The problem is, when you let in the supernatural realm, nothing fails the plausibility test. Licona refused the supernatural for a group hallucination explanation ― maybe a Roman God was testing their faith and it backfired stupendously ― but allowed it for the explanation he preferred.

To be clear, this wasn’t a debate about whether the supernatural or a God existed. It was specifically about whether Jesus was raised from the dead ― the passive voice there means both that Jesus came back from the dead, and that someone is responsible for it. Dillahunty could, therefore, have accepted the supernatural and a God and still have rationally not accepted the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Once you allow for the supernatural, you don’t have good reason to accept an explanation; you actually have less reason to accept any explanation, because suddenly all things could be magic. “Supernatural” isn’t just a nonexplanation, it is an unexplanation, that removes confidence in literally all claims. As much as gravity appears to be a force that is relational to mass, the supernatural allows explanations like deceitful gravity-pixies intentionally making it look that way ― and if you’re going to take the supernatural seriously, you suddenly have to be a little less confident about gravity.

Anyway, Licona argues that Near Death Experiences and, what I shall term, significant hallucinations happen. He tells the story of a woman who hallucinated her friend’s face at 2:30AM and behind the face was the Devil (the cartoon Devil, not beautiful Lucifer). A few days later, she found out her friend had died at 2:30AM that night.

We are within reasonable conversation to point out that the Bible described Lucifer as being beautiful, and so the red horned cartoon Lucifer she saw points towards a cultural hallucination as opposed to an actual siting. But, there is another problem: the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Ignore for a moment that we have 3rd hand accounts and that she found out her friend had died from a newspaper (instead of being so moved by the hallucination to contact her friend) and instead realise that hundred of thousands of hallucinations happen. We have a reasonable natural explanation of why hallucinations happen. Given that hallucinations happen in such abundance, we also have a good statistical understanding of why some small number of them would coincide with significant events. (We also have the phenomenon of confabulation, which explains why some hallucinations become “significant” is a post facto way ― where the memory is altered to fit the context.) The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy is evident here in that we are encouraged to ignore all the times Near Death Experiences and hallucinations were not significant, which appears to be a vast majority of them. Instead, we are asked to look at the times it did happen: you draw the target around where the bullet landed.

Licona also tells the story of a Near Death Experience where both the dying mother and the grieving son hallucinate a meeting: the mother, in her Near Death state, imagines being in a bar seeing her son; the son, in a bar, imagines seeing his mother. There’s no CCTV footage of the mother being in the bar (or suddenly vanishing) and no suggestion that other people at the bar were startled by the suddenly arriving and then disappearing woman in the bar.

It is worth saying that I don’t know why these two people had this experience. But I do know this genre of experience can be explained in the same way the above is explained: a natural hallucination and a statistically probable significance. We’d have to buy the book this story came from to see whether both people describe the same bar.

Then there’s another story from a Ouiji board and a self-levitating metal bin lid. And then a challenge as to whether we would be convinced of the supernatural if Licona were beheaded on stage in front of everyone, and then walked out of the theatre and hour later with his head firmly on.

Basically, you get the idea: there’s all this weird stuff that Licona doesn’t see that nature can explain, and therefore the supernatural does exist. And, if you doubt that reasoning, you should consider even more outlandish things to see whether you are simply biased against the supernatural.

Dillahunty then calls this what it is: “Supernatural” is being used as a basket term in two senses. Firstly, “supernatural” simply means that which Licona can’t explain with his understanding of nature. Whether that means no natural explanation exists is another question; it could just be that Licona is confusing his own ignorance or incredulity with the supernatural. Or, it may be the case that no substantiated natural explanation exists at all, yet. In which case, Licona is simply confusing global ignorance with the supernatural. It is worth bearing in mind that the cause of lightning was once the topic of global ignorance, and it’s no evidence at all for the supernatural. Licona’s difficulty in simply saying “I don’t know” is the cornerstone of his evidence for the supernatural.

The other sense that supernatural is being used as a basket term is that Licona is dragging all things accredited to the supernatural in. He only attempted to demonstrate Near Death Experiences and significant hallucinations meaning something personal transcends the body; that is the entirety of what he tried to demonstrate (and failed, in my assessment). But then he tries to call that supernatural and pull resurrections and Gods through with it.

Licona tries to paint a picture of the world that looks a little like the Venn Diagram below: if you can’t explain it in natural terms, it is supernatural.

Natural and Supernatural PNG
The world as presented by Licona: Nature (or, more specifically, nature as I understand it) or supernatural. No other options.

This model presents a dichotomy that misses a few of the options: perhaps the phenomenon you’re trying to explain has been misreported, or maybe there exists an explanation you ― or humanity at large ― doesn’t yet know or will never know. This is not Naturalism of the Gaps (when you don’t know the answer, assert natural explanations), or even Ontological Naturalism (outright refuse any suggestion of non-natural explanations). This is pointing out fallacious reasoning: a false dichotomy. This is instead arguing, firstly, that you should withhold judgement on the truth of a claim untill you are genuinely faced with evidence. All Licona is facing us with is questions. Secondly, this is arguing for a more nuanced model:

Knowledge of natural and Supernatural PNG.png
Whenever something falls outside the circle “Knowledge of the natural”, we need a way of establishing where it is inside “Natural” still, or outside it. And even this accepts the basic format offered by Licona.

The fact is that our knowledge of nature doesn’t exhaust the content of nature. There is, therefore, a set within nature of which we are ignorant. There is no method, yet, (as far as I can tell) for distinguishing between natural phenomena where we are ignorant of the explanation and supernatural phenomena of which we are also ignorant. All we know is that we are ignorant; at that point, we are blind to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Here, the reasonable move is to withhold a conclusion. But this is also an insufficiently nuanced view:

Gradated knowledge.png
Instead, think of a model of reality that simply moves from things we are extremely confident about (or “know”) and move outward into less sure and more contested ideas, eventually out into abject ignorance. The terms “Natural” and “Supernatural” appear entirely meaningless in this model, however, everything we do know is considered natural, so the supernatural may be hiding somewhere in our ignorance.

There is no hard line between what we know and what we don’t know. Instead, our knowledge trails off into ignorance via claims and concepts of which we are uncertain about. As the light of our knowledge peeters out into the darkness of our ignorance, the best claim that can really be made about the supernatural is that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of the supernatural being outside of our knowledge somewhere. It’s a question that lingers over our ignorance, not an assertion that can be defended by our ignorance.

Again, I am not claiming that because you can’t defend that something is supernatural, that it is therefore natural. I am arguing that the answer ‘I don’t know’ can be and often is the best answer ― and the only motive for actually exploring explanations.

One audience member challenges Dillahunty as to whether he would accept the supernatural if he witnessed the following: the man walking on water across a lake and then taking off, flying into the clouds. Dillahunty responded by saying he would accept that he witnessed it, but wouldn’t accept any explanation until he (or someone) was given an opportunity for impartial investigation. He then challenged the audience member to explain what features we would expect to find during our investigation if, indeed, the event had a supernatural explanation.

And it is that latter challenge that is very telling. No one knows. In place of any description of the supernatural, people want to give increasingly outlandish events and ask if witnessing them would convince you of the supernatural. Dillahunty is a magician, so would want to rule out illusions first. I, equally, would want to rule out technology I didn’t know existed. But even if we rule out magic and technology, all we are left with is a bunch of options we have ruled out and some other options we haven’t thought of and some more options we can’t investigate and this credulous voice yelling do you believe in the supernatural now? But, nothing positively pointing towards the supernatural at all.

21 thoughts on “Is there a supernatural realm?”

  1. Sorry, I just couldn’t finish this. The Venn diagram showing where the supernatural and the natural just got to me. You could have as well, put “And Here Be Dragons” outside the natural circle. A better diagram would be a single circle which says “What We Know, Kinda, Sorta” and outside the circle is “What We Don’t Know … Yet.” Their diagram fails in that it leaves out the Subnatural, the Hypernatural, the Extranatural and many other realms.

    The supposition that there is a realm of supernatural events is not unrealistic, but to think that any natural evidence could be supplied to establish that claim is idiocy. If that evidence existed, then the events would be … by definition … natural. The contraction of the scientific method by Karl Popper to “conjecture and criticism” is one I subscribe to … as an oversimplification which is basically correct. These people seem to leave out the “criticism part”. you know they aprt where you try to prove your conjecture wrong.

    On Wed, Oct 4, 2017 at 5:20 AM, Allallt in discussion wrote:

    > Allallt posted: “Watching a debate between Matt Dillahunty and Mike Licona > on whether Jesus was raised from the dead was a weird experience. Licona’s > approach relied heavily on the supernatural is real therefore literally > anything could have happened. And his defence for ” >

    1. Well, the post is now officially up. (No idea how you read it 2 weeks ago.) But I implore you to read a little further. I tear the first Venn diagram apart and offer two progressions on it throughout the post. The point of this post is that “Supernatural” appears to be identical to “I have no other explanation”, which is a awful definition.

  2. Excellent post. I really enjoyed reading it. I think you’ve covered all the basis here, but I think what wandered through my mind is that perhaps there can never really be a supernatural event and maybe even the word supernatural doesn’t even make sense to have in other than a fictional story telling sense. I take your point about not being able to discount the supernatural outright and I think this is why from an intellectual position all atheists should be agnostic on the point of their being the supernatural, but if you just take supernatural by itself how would we even define.

    Is it something that defies the laws of physics? Well this has happened before and physical laws have adjusted or changed. Or as you say there are also observations that we can’t reconcile with our current understanding of the universe and so we are in the process of debate over it. But in the past such debates have been settled, and so we have no reason to assume that debates today won’t ever be solved, and can safely assume that new debates will exist in the future.

    Is the supernatural just something we can’t explain? That doesn’t make sense either as you point out.

    Supernatural doesn’t seem to have a coherent definition. Sure we can break down the word and say it literally means “outside of nature”. But what does that even really mean? Because if the nature of the universe is to have a deity or deities then are they also not part of the universe in some way? At the very least for us to know of these supernatural forces they must interact in this universe in some way and if through their interaction they are not bound in some way by the laws of our universe, we are back at the beginning to simply say that the supernatural defies the laws of physics and we know where that argument goes.

    The other thought that struck me while reading this is the idea of repeatibility. This is something that those who claim to have supernatural powers fail to do. If I saw someone walking on water. I would say, okay, but then they should be able to run on water. They should be able to hop on water. They should be able to do it on the wavy ocean, river, or lake. If pushed down to the bottom they should be able to float up and stand on top again. I might be inclined to believe in magic if I didn’t have to depend on one time sightings (even if I personally saw it) and/or reports from other witnesses, particular ones that no longer exist and can’t be interviewed. To even suggest that the resurrection happened is a matter of faith because the other possibility is that it is complete and utter fiction, or that he wasn’t really dead to begin with. So if some D’n’D like wizard could shoot fireballs from his/her hand then this should be repeatable in any setting, at any time even if does defy the laws of thermodynamics.

    1. I have tried to argue something similar before. The very act of successfully understanding something as a result of investigation makes the phenomena “Natural”. And failure to understand something through investigation only means we are ignorant, not that there isn’t an explanation.

      Your D’n’D wizard is a good example: all we would do is update the “natural”; thermodynamics would need to be reassessed.

      “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.”
      https://allallt.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/supernatural-is-a-bad-excuse-for-having-no-evidence/

      1. Yeah I agree. I think perhaps I should have thrown in the added note of lack of predictability. I mean a wizard who let’s say was able to throw fireballs based in proportion to how much beans he ate or the amount of energy in the air, would be a somewhat predictable phenomena. However if the size of the fireball bore no relation to any sort of amount he ate, or the air around him didn’t get colder in proportion, or there were no body temperature changes…perhaps this would be a better way to say something was supernatural. This is an important part of science as I’m sure you know. The things we are most sure of are the ones that are most predictable. Finding something we are sure happens and seems to not have any predictability might be said to be supernatural. Of course again we would still say…well maybe we just don’t know the mechanism yet…but we will. Yeah I mean it’s in the end why I can find no alternative but to not believe in the supernatural, because it simply doesn’t make sense how something can be outside our universe, but not be measurable in some way in this one. And considering how many things have diminished from being supernaturally caused to naturally caused in our history, it’s hard to imagine that trend not continuing.

      2. I have tried to argue something similar before. The very act of successfully understanding something as a result of investigation makes the phenomena “Natural”. And failure to understand something through investigation only means we are ignorant, not that there isn’t an explanation.
        I don’t think naturalism is usually understood in this way. A majority of philosophers probably believe that there are at least some brute facts; i.e. things whose existence or occurrence has no cause or explanation. The brute facts are not considered supernatural, nor is belief in the existence of some brute facts linked to belief in the supernatural.
        If there is a sufficient explanation for every contingent fact it would mean that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is true. If the Principle of Sufficient Reason were true there would be a very strong argument that God’s existence is entailed by it.

      3. Look up Gottfried Leibniz, the guy who came up with the PSR. I think on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy there is an article on Leibniz showing how he uses the PSR to make the Rationalist argument for the existence of God.

        There are all sorts of issues with the PSR besides that anyway.

  3. For God’s sake allalt, life is supernatural.

    That is of course unless, you can go into the lab and create a handful (or a spoonful) of dirt………..using nothing.
    May I now bring into the courts of common sense evidence which I call the divine trifecta to prove my case:

    the compass
    the plumbline
    the carpenters level.

    All supernatural. Case closed.

      1. Always happy to provide some daylight in the maelstrom of atheistic fog. 😉

        But go ahead and gather some of your intellectual buddies and devise a plan to make that dirt…………..using nothing……………

        . You may scoff, but the point condemns foolishness every time.

  4. Supernatural:

    A lion without teeth still scatters the prowling hyenas; they may laugh at their own ignorance, but at least they still have their heads………….so unlike the monsters of is-lam……..so natural for them.

      1. Well for starters allalt, the beginning of life is supernatural, the first man and all………unless you think that we first grew as pumpkins on a vine.

        Now as to to your having children, yeah, a bit of nature there, but still super. But you are simply borrowing the tools.

        Your dilemma is admitting the One who cast the die.

  5. I’m being ignorant and commenting without reading the post. Mostly because i don’t want to contribute to your opinion. So short answer, yes i think there is such thing as a supernatural realm. And i believe that science explaining it is a waste of time because people should believe the hell they want in spite others trying to condemn them or saying words like can’t or no as a way to put them down.

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