Thursday, July 19, 2012

There really is no such thing as Supernatural.

Advocates for the real existence of spirit entities (whether they be ghosts or gods or the immaterial soul or what have you) or of magic or psychic phenomena, often claim that atheists and skeptics "by ruling out the possibility of the supernatural, are merely being dogmatic in the same fashion that they so love to criticize".
I would like to put this foolish old shibboleth to rest once and for all.  I know this is probably a vain hope.  Old dogs may not learn new tricks, but they never forget their old ones.  Still, with a sigh, I will try to make clear that the concept of supernatural itself is meaningless.

We start with the word. What does it mean?  As an adjective it simply means above or beyond the natural. From the Oxford Dictionaries more specifically:

  • (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature: a supernatural being.
We must then ask what it means to be beyond scientific understanding.  It could mean indistinguishable from non-existent. As McKown memorably quipped "The invisible and non-existent look very much alike".  However, to those who make affirmative claims regarding the supernatural, it means definitely understandable, but just not via science.  If they are of a more agnostic or diplomatic frame of mind, they might soften this to, we shouldn't rule out the possibility, we must take it seriously.  Each view is rooted in the  idea that we can somehow bypass the requirements of physical evidence, reason and rigorous epistemology, i.e science, and validate claims about what is actually the case in some other way.  We must accept the possibility of Other Ways of Knowing.   There are difficulties with this, which I will get to.

Before that we must next ask what it means to be beyond the laws of nature.  Nature as a word has many meanings, and this can obscure rather than clarify.

I submit that for this discussion it does not mean
  • the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations
but instead means
  • the basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something: (informal) the inherent and unchangeable character of something.
So when we say laws of nature, we are expressing a fundamental idea--that reality is comprised of things constrained by their inherent character.  In Wittgenstein's terms, when we state that something is the case, we are making a declaration about its nature. This is the entire theme of Lucretius' poem De rerum natura, (On the nature of things).  It is why the original term for physical science was Natural Philosophy, the investigation into the true nature of things.

Therin lies the problem.  Whenever somebody talks affirmatively about souls, or ghosts, or gods, or spirits, or anything else that gets lumped under the term supernatural, they always end up ascribing an actual nature to them.  They have to.  This is what it means to describe things that way.  So when they claim that someone they know is a real fortune teller, they are saying that it is in that person's nature to transcend the arrow of time to have experiences of the future in advance.  When they talk about a god, they might start by claiming it is essentially unknowable.  They will strongly suggest that it is impossible for the deity to be constrained in any way.  Yet saying this god is unconstrained by nature, is the same thing as saying that it doesn't have a nature of its own.  There's no way around this.  To have a nature is by definition to be constrained.   At heart believers know this to be the case.  In any conversation with someone who believes in a god they will eventually make explicit claims about what that god's nature is and isn't, what that god does and does not do..  Make an assertion counter to their account, and they will correct you instantly.  They will say, sure, god can be anything, except that.  The same is true for believers in ghosts and psychics, immaterial souls. For the believer, these things can be expected and eventually observed to behave in particular ways and not in others according to the nature of what they are.  In the end to be knowable is to have a nature,  Supernatural is a useless term.

Which returns us to the idea of something "beyond scientific understanding".  As long as your goal is to determine what is the case, you are inquiring after the nature of things.  Once you expect to observe something behaving in a particular way, you have exited the realm of "other ways of knowing", and fully entered the realm of science.  That is the problem with the doctrine of knowledge by faith which asserts that there are two spheres,  one where things can only be known through reason, evidence and sound epistemology--science, and a second where you can know things in some other way without those requirements.  This assumes we have the capacity to tell the difference. It would not work otherwise. Without being able to tell which approach to use in a particular case, we end up just guessing and hoping.  I can report that have found no evidence for such a capacity within myself.  I don't think it exists in others.   However, even that might not be important in the end.  If science is what we use to vet claims about the nature of those things expected to have observable effects, the only thing we have left to vet by "other ways of knowing" like faith are things without a nature of their own which are not expected to have observable effects.  I can't imagine what such things would be.  How would we attempt a conversation about them?  For all practical purposes this sounds like a null set.

So this insistence that true critical thinkers must admit to the possibility of the supernatural is at heart bogus, because the term is empty.  Supernatural is an abstract point of departure that one has to retreat from the minute any meaningful conversation starts.