Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The supernatural refers to conscious magical, religious or unknown forces that cannot ordinarily be perceived except through their effects. This word is often used interchangeably with preternatural or paranormal. Unlike natural forces, these putative supernatural forces can not be shown to exist by the scientific method. Supernatural claims assert phenomena beyond the realm of current scientific understanding, which are often in direct conflict with current scientific theory.
A concept of the supernatural is generally identified with religion, or unorganised forms of belief, although there is much debate as to whether a conception of the supernatural is necessary for religion (see The nature of God in Western theology and Anthropology of religion).
The supernatural is also a topic in various genres of fiction, such as fantasy and horror. Some examples of supernatural phenomena are miracles and ghosts; psychic abilities like psychokinesis and telepathy are better classified as paranormal than supernatural.
Views on the supernatural
The supernatural as distinct from nature
In this, the most common view, the term supernatural is contrasted with the term natural, which presumes that some events occur according to natural laws, and others do not, because they are caused by forces external to nature. In essence, the world is seen as operating according to natural law "normally," until a force external to nature (such as God) interferes.
The supernatural as sovereign over nature
Other individuals, particularly in Eastern Christianity, deny any distinction between Natural and Supernatural. According to this view, because God is sovereign, all events are directly caused by Him. The only meaningful distinction that remains is events which God causes to happen regularly, and events which God causes to happen rarely.
The supernatural as manifested through nature
Another view, held by men such as Albert Einstein, asserts that God makes himself known through the beauty and order of nature, but is not a personal God concerned with human moral activity, and does not violate the laws of nature which He created.
The supernatural as a higher nature
Other individuals assert that events that appear to us to be supernatural occur according to natural laws which we do not yet understand. In contrast to supernaturalists, they assert that all things operate according to a law of nature. In contrast to atheists, they assert that God, miracles, or other supernatural phenomena are real, verifiable, and part of the laws of nature that we do not yet understand.
The supernatural as a human coping mechanism
Other individuals, particularly among the skeptical academic community, believe that all events have natural and only natural causes. They believe that human beings ascribe supernatural attributes to purely natural events in an attempt to cope with fear and ignorance.
The supernatural as magic
Since the belief in magic is very old and held a great power over the minds and imagination of earlier generations long before the concept of experimental science, some historians of conjuring and magic think the supernatural is a surviving form of magic. In the human quest for understanding and survival, magic may be seen as a complement to science. Both science and magic stem from the human imagination, observation and contemplation: but whereas science requires time, resources, boundless curiosity, and flexibility, magic provides an immediate solution, more appealing to the unscientific mind, and requiring little, or no resources. (See Lynn Thorndike's classic study,The History of Magic and Experimental Science, Tarbell Course in Magic, vol 1- Harlan Tarbell, forward and epilogue to Greater Magic- John Northern Hilliard, The Discoverie of Witchcraft- Reginald Scot and the vanishing works of Henry Ridgely Evans, The Old and New Magic, The Spirit World Unmasked, and Hours with Ghosts or 19th Century Witchcraft.) It should be noted there may be a persistent link between supernaturalism, the paranormal, and the desire for immortality.
Arguments in favor of supernaturality
Following are some common arguments in support of belief in Supernatural Phenomena.
- Many believers note that the complexities and mysteries of the universe cannot yet be explained by naturalistic explanations alone and argue that it is equally reasonable to presume that a Person or Persons controls the unexplained as to presume that no Person does, because neither explanation is verifiable or falsifiable until all phenomena have been explained. Believers note that it is unlikely that all phenomena will be explained soon. Believers conclude that, for the moment anyway, theistic and atheistic interpretations of unexplained phenomena are on equal intellectual and philosophical footing.
- Believers argue further that just as science has evolved from weak early attempts to explain natural events (such as spontaneous generation and the doctrine of humors) into a much more credible modern science, religion has evolved from weak early attempts to explain supernatural events (such as animism) into the much more credible modern religions. Therefore, just as the simplistic and erroneous scientific explanations of early humans should not discredit modern science, the simplistic and erroneous religious understandings of early humans should not discredit modern religion.
- Believers note that many of history's greatest scientists, including Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and Albert Einstein, appear to have believed firmly in a God behind the universe. (Still, Einstein explicitly denied the existence of the supernatural and an afterlife. See Einstein's forward to Man and his Gods by Homer W. Smith, Grosset & Dunlap, N.Y., 1957) However, believers also acknowledge that, because freedom of speech on religious matters is a relatively recent development, it would have been impossible for many of these great scientists, such as Galileo, to express doubts about the existence of a deity, let alone to openly avow agnosticism or atheism.
- Believers note that the vast majority of humanity, of all races, religions, and ages, believe and have always believed in supernatural phenomena of one form or another.
- Believers conclude that while some people have invented religions to help them cope with frightening and unexplainable phenomena, others have come to believe in supernatural phenomena through intellectually honest means, having been persuaded by reason, evidence, and experience that the universe cannot be explained by naturalistic explanations alone, but is best understood by acknowledging the Supernatural.
- Believers also note that while some people have denied the existence of supernatural phenomena through intellectually honest means, having been persuaded by reason, evidence, and experience that the supernatural does not exist, others have denied the supernatural out of a deep fear that supernatural forces might actually exist and have a real and tangible impact on our lives, and a fear that the universe might be more complex than their theories allow.
- By its own definition, science is incapable of examining or testing for the existence of the supernatural. Science concerns itself with what can be measured and seen through observation. Thus, believers in supernatural phenomenon hold that scientific methods would not detect them; therefore the lack of evidence does not matter. Scientists counter that if this is so, then believers in supernaturalism themselves would be incapable of witnessing any supernatural phenomenon, as human senses themselves operate within the laws of physics, and can only sense events occurring in the natural, physical world.
- Applying Occam's Razor is useful when looking for an explanation of specific events, but the likelihood of a natural or supernatural cause is determined largely by whether a person believes in the supernatural in the first place. Using this argument against the existence of the supernatural is circular. Theological claims generally do not claim or attempt to be scientifically provable.
- Some of modern biblical scholarship is based on the assumption that the supernatural does not exist, or that God is far less involved in the world than commonly supposed (deism). Many theists believe that this biases the results, and is of itself equivalent to a religious position.
However, Jews do not accept the claims made in the Christian New Testament; similarly, Christians do not accept the supernatural claims made by the Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam, and so on. John Drane writes:
- Not unrelated to this is a more general philosophical scepticism towards any document whether ancient or modern, that appears to give credence to the possibility of the occurrence of unique, or apparently miraculous happenings. Academic biblical study still generally operates within a mechanistic world-view, according to which the universe is understood as a closed system, operating according to rigidly structured 'laws of nature' which are entirely predictable and never deviate. By definition, therefore, the unpredictable cannot happen, and on this view it is inevitable that the gospels should be seen as something other than history, for they do contain accounts of a number of unique happenings which appear to violate the 'laws of nature' as set out by Newtonian science. Physics, of course, no longer operates on that paradigm, and the work of more recent theorists has led to the emergence of a far more flexible understanding of what might be possible within the physical universe.
- Proponents of supernaturalism claim that their belief system is more flexible, which allows them more diversity in terms of epistemology (ways of understanding knowledge.) For example, scientists accept the findings that the Earth and universe are many billions of years old. Among members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, however, there is a wider range of beliefs. Many have a literal interpretation of Genesis, and they believe that the earth and universe are only 6000 years old; other Christians accept the results of science which show the earth and universe as many billions of years old in terms of age.
- Many religious people claim that these phenomena, being essentially "unnatural," are not appropriate for scientific study (see also William James, The Variety of Religious Experience. James was convinced Leonora Piper was an authentic spirit medium who contacted the dead. See: Studies in Spiritism by Amy Tanner, Prometheus books, 1994, reprint of 1910 edition and Both Sides of the Veil by Anne Manning Robbins, Boston, Sherman, French & Co, 1909, and The Correspondence of William James #06 by Ignas K. Skrupskelis. A striking example that many times the scientific quest for proof of the supernatural has led to a detoriation of rationality caused by a scientist's "need" to believe.
- John Drane writes that science is perpetuating "intellectual arrogance" when it does not accept the possibility of supernatural events and miracles: "To say that unique events can never happen, or that the supernatural does not exist, when most people of most ethnic groups at most points in history have claimed otherwise, is merely to perpetuate the intellectual arrogance of previous generations of Western thinkers, and far from providing an answer to the questions raised by history it merely begs larger and more important questions about the nature of Western intellectual culture." In response, most scienists and historians regard such arguments as fundamentalist religious apologetics, and the pride of being uneducated.
Arguments against supernaturality
The following arguments are frequently cited against belief in supernatural events:
- Much of what we call science today was once believed to be supernatural. The control of electricity, the manufacture of steel, radio waves, all were once thought to be beyond the bounds of nature, and therefore supernatural, by conventional scientists. As such, what is believed to be supernatural today may be completely explained tomorrow.
- Many claimed supernatural events can be studied by the scientific method; however, once the physical laws by which an event occurs become known, the event is no longer classified as 'supernatural'.
- Supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur. Some, if not all, theological claims made by religions are unsupportable by scientific means. Sir Karl Popper's influential Conjectures and Refutations argues that the strength of a hypothesis depends on how many ways it could be proven false. Hypotheses inherently incapable of falsification can only be compared on the basis of general principles such as Occam's Razor. Fundamental supernatural hypotheses are difficult to define, let alone test.
- Any scientific hypothesis worthy of the title "theory" is supported by a complex web of observations and tests that might have falsified it but did not. The supernatural hypothesis provides no such basis for belief.
- Those who do not accept dogmatic authority find no reason for accepting the belief that the Bible (or any other religious scripture or institution) is infallible, or historically accurate and flawless. The absence of independent evidence confirming some of the biblical narratives has caused many scholars to question the accuracy or even the historicity of these accounts (see The Bible and history). In this view, all works of scripture are seen as works written by human beings, that developed in a given historical and social context over a long period of time. Biblical writers, and later readers, attributed natural events to the will of God.
- Where science is able to address issues in dispute, to correct errors of fact, or to call into question claims of authority grounded in history, it has at times been able to soften antagonisms based on competing supernatural claims. This is because in issues of observable fact the truth of opposing claims can, at least in principle, be objectively tested, eliminating the temptation toward violence to resolve a difference of views and silence dissent.
- Truth as suggested by naturalistic science may arguably provide greater freedom of opinion beyond those issues that can be decided by science, but science itself does not claim to be able to resolve disputes of authority, or of rights or standards of morality, unless these are issues of testable fact. Otherwise, (for example) the politics and morality of a scientist are as subjective or as reliant upon assumptions about the supernatural as those of anyone else -- and of course, individuals may decide to remain either passively agnostic about every issue that cannot be tested or actively hostile to claims of authority that cannot be scientifically justified.
- Naturalistic science may arguably provide promise of greater agreement of thought and culture than supernaturalism has. Science is far more widely accepted than any particular form of supernaturalism: men and women of all races, cultures, and religions practice science or use the technology inspired by it, but they do not all accept naturalism as a philosophy.
- There have been many attempts to verify claims of supernatural phenomena scientifically. All are generally considered failures, although proponents often claimed to show startling and unusual results. Most scientists claim that the experiments are best classified as pseudoscience, that they have been experimentally flawed, statistically invalid, and/or not repeatable. Many critics of such experiments state that believers fool themselves into seeing results due to magical thinking.
- Many events once accepted as supernatural are now understood as manifestations of a natural, explainable nature that were misinterpreted.
Naturalization vs. supernaturalization
Some people believe that supernatural events occur, while others do not. In the process of debate, both sides attempt to discredit the other. People that believe in supernatural events accuse those who do not of naturalizing genuinely supernatural events; people that do not believe in supernatural events accuse who do of supernaturalizing genuinely natural events.
The neologism naturalize, meaning, "to make natural", is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of denying any supernatural significance to events which another presumes to be natural. This perceived process may also be referred to as reductionism or deconstructionism. It rests on the believer's presumption that supernatural events can and do occur; thus, their description as "natural" by the skeptic is seen as a result of a process of deliberate or unconscious denial of any supernatural significance, thus, "naturalization".
The neologism supernaturalize, meaning "to make supernatural", is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of ascribing supernatural causes to events which another presumes to be supernatural. This perceived process may also be referred to as mythification or spiritualization. It rests on the presumption of the skeptic that supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur; thus, their description by the believer as supernatural is seen as the result of a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, thus, "supernaturalization".
The subjective nature of the issue
An individual's interpretation of events depends upon his conscious or unconscious theories toward the nature of the universe. Since each brings a unique set of personal attributes to a situation, and each situation brings different forces to bear, two people may come to completely different conclusions based on identical evidence. Some have suggested that dogmatically-held conclusions regarding the existence or non-existence of the supernatural prevent one from maintaining and "open mind." Instead, such beliefs supply comfort and satistify an individual's need for security. According to this argument, selectivity governs phenomenological reality, meaning that one "screens out" possible explanations simply because they conflict with one's paradigm and create dissonance. Conformity to the popular dead end conclusions of the existence or non-existence of the supernatural hinders human creativity and progress, because it limits the scope of curiosity and other alternative explanations one is willing to consider. For example, to make oneself "look good" to others thus avoiding isolation, and perhaps the desire to imitate personal heroes.
Alleged instances of supernaturalization
- In the Hebrew Bible, plagues and other misfortunes are described as signs of God's anger or vengeance. J. Keir Howard of the Diocese of Wellington Institute of Theology , New Zealand, notes that:
- Until there was any proper understanding of the causative factors in disease and the actual disease processes themselves, there was a tendency to see sickness as a result of divine visitations and punishment for wrongdoing. (Oxford Companion to the Bible (1992), entry for "Medicine and the Bible")
- English Protestants believed that the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a sign of God's favor for their cause.
- Some fundamentalist American Christians have interpreted the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11th September, 2001 as a sign of God's anger at various and sundry things, including secularism.
- Some Muslims interpreted the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, whose crew included an Israeli Jew and an Indian-American Hindu, as a sign of God's anger at America, Israel, and Hinduism.
- In Japan the scattering of aggressive Mogul-Korean fleets in 1274 and 1281 was attributed to the 神風 (kamikaze) or divine wind.
Believers respond to the many instances of supernaturalization by arguing that the fact that supernaturalization often occurs does not refute the existence of the supernatural any more than the fact that scientists often make errors refutes the existence of the natural universe; and that the supernatural by its very nature cannot be explored through science, and must therefore be explored through different means, such as spirituality. Non-believers counter that the two forms of explanation cannot be equated, because erroneous naturalistic claims, such as those made for the existence of phlogiston or N-rays, are routinely and often rapidly corrected by reference to nature, while erroneous supernaturalistic claims such as the above are impossible to correct by reference to supernature or by any other widely accepted objective means.
The supernatural in monotheistic religions
- Dualism (Philosophy of mind) - the view that the mental and the physical have a fundamentally different nature as an answer to the mind-body problem.
- Idealism (Philosophy) - any theory positing the primacy of spirit, mind, or language over matter. It includes claiming that thought has some crucial role in making the world the way it is.
- Vitalism - the doctrine that life cannot be explained solely by mechanism. Often, the non-material element is referred to as the soul, the "vital spark," or a kind of energy.
- Naturalism (Philosophy) - which rejects the validity of explanations or theories making use of entities inaccessible to natural science.
- Materialism (Philosophy) - the view that the only thing that can truly be said to 'exist' is matter; that fundamentally, all things are comprised of 'material'. Materialism is typically contrasted with dualism, idealism, and vitalism.
- the Scientific method - essentially an extremely cautious means of building a supportable, evidenced understanding of our world.
Cotton Mather- Wonders of the Invisible World Boston, 1693
Robert Calef- More Wonders of the Invisible World, 1700
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