What is Supernatural?

I’ve been thinking today about what constitutes the supernatural. Inspired by a blog post on whyevolutionistrue, and the resulting comments.

It is a word that just gets used, by believers and non-believers, but it doesn’t actually mean much. It is surprisingly hard to give any coherent definition without resorting to equally meaningless words (such as “transcend”) or metaphor (such as “beyond” when not talking about a physcial location).

The discussion seemed to centre around the idea that it referred to some class of things or phenomena that were not-natural. I.e. that were not part of the natural cosmos, or natural order. I guess that’s one definition. But the obvious problem with this is that it simply begs the question. What makes something not part of the natural cosmos or order?

If anyone wants to give it a shot, I’d be interested.

In the car this evening I asked my wife what she understood to be supernatural. A little background: my wife identifies as Christian, although shares many, if not most of the same beliefs as me (if that is confusing, it might be worth knowing that I am not essentialist – I think labels such as Christian and atheist are things we give ourselves based on a whole slew of influences and intentions).

Her immediate response rather floored me. The supernatural, she said, was the name we give to anything we can’t explain. It is a purely subjective description. So things that are supernatural today (feelings of transcendence, for example) are very likely to not be at some point in the future when we understand how they work, neurologically and hormonally. Similarly lightning was once supernatural but isn’t now. Supernatural is different for different people, one person’s supernatural healing is another person’s natural recovery.

I have to say that blew through my complex attempts to rationalise an ontological category for the supernatural, and reminded me that supernatural too is just a label.

If the supernatural is the domain of God, then God’s domain shrinks with every passing journal paper and every piece of research. But there will always be things we don’t, and can’t understand. Those things will always be supernatural, if you choose to label them as such.

And the brilliance of this idea is it shows in stark contrast the choice inherent in belief in the supernatural. I don’t believe in the supernatural, not because I can explain any more than anyone else, but only because I don’t choose to use that word when my explanations run out.

Some extras that didn’t fit in the narrative above:

I suspect that believers in the supernatural are less willing to try to find out (supernatural belief seems to often go hand in hand with a belief that calling something supernatural explains something).

I also suspect that many believers in the supernatural would object to this definition, however apt. Many believe the supernatural is an ontological category.

And finally I think that this doesn’t differentiate very strongly between other terms such as paranormal and Dawkins’s perinormal. That’s not a problem for me, but might be for some.



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15 responses to “What is Supernatural?

  1. check out this Richard Carrier essay about defining supernaturalism; http://webulite.dyndns.org:8080/defining_supernaturalism

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

  2. Ian

    Excellent and totally apposite article. I enjoyed it a lot, thanks.

    As with many of these things, I felt he summarily rejected the epistemological definition without due consideration, however. I think it has deep merits on its own terms and I’d like to defend it…

    He seems to be saying that people have in mind a platonic ideal about what is supernatural, and that we have to describe that ideal. In that case, yes, epistemological definitions are no use.

    But people actually use the term in regard to phenomena (mental or physical). And so one can collect together the phenomena that receive the label, see the common qualities and use that as a definition. That definition is at least as good as the platonic one. It may not be the definition that the users of the term actually have. But I’d argue that most users of the term have vague and very different definitions, none of which corresponds to Carrier’s, even if many of them have the quality of being metaphysical. Even so, if my definition applies to the same set of phenomena, then I don’t think that matters.

    Put more succinctly (but requiring some caveats): a definition for term X is valid if one can infer from it the domain of phenomena that people are likely to call X.

    I do something very similar in the systematic theology paper I’m writing. I use a phenomenological definition of God as the basis of doing theology. I deliberately and explicitly reject the metaphysical definition of God that believers of God hold, and concentrate on the phenomena that they call God.

    Having said all that, epistemological definitions aren’t what he wants. And that’s his choice to make. And he does a bang-up job of them arguing for his definition. As I said, great article.

  3. On this index post, I have slowly listed many of the “SuperNatural” experiences I have had. In each post I try to tell the experienc with the the voice of my past self and with my still strong memories of those times — and don’t try to rationalize or explain them away with my present beliefs or inclinations.. For indeed, as your wife said, they remain unexplained and thus supernatural. It is also one whay I use that word. But I do not hold any ontological category for the supernatural. But I think many atheists have not had these types of experiences and thus confuse their distaste for the ontological category with distaste for unusual experiences when they dialogue with believers. I wrote the posts to perhaps address the need to separate these tendencies in the judgement of Atheists. Likewise, I thought they would be helpful to show theists that atheists can have their experiences yet not feel inclined to create ontological entities and instead be cool with “I don’t know”.
    BTW, as you know, I am not an essentialist either.

  4. Ian

    Uzza, thanks for the link. Very interesting. I agree, by and large.

    Sabio – yes, I’ve enjoyed many of those posts. But thanks for pointing me at the index post. I can’t match those experiences. I haven’t had supernatural experiences of the same kind. Not that aren’t trivially understandable in other ways, at least. But I completely agree with your reading of them, and your approach.

  5. muddleglum

    I had to laugh.

    >If the supernatural is the domain of God, then God’s domain shrinks with every passing journal paper and every piece of research.<
    I don't believe in the supernatural, but in the spiritual realm. Science pertains to the material realm. Therefore, God's domain doesn't shrink, but becomes better defined. I do believe in a physical area in the brain that religion is based on. This is what would consider lightning as supernatural. I've no problem with your definition from that point of view.

    When I was a skeptical nihilistic atheist, I studied a bunch of "supernatural" phenomena and found it basically trickery and self-delusion, though some aspects seemed less simple. I finally came across a book where I easily demolished most of the smoke and mirrors but was left with a very hard nut to crack. One day I was walking from math class to the science building when a door opened near the ground. Some beings in the door told me, "Enter the door and we will give you great power." I walked away after a short time, though I wanted the power, and hurried on to my class. Much as I hated to leave, there was too much evidence there for me to remain a nihilistic atheist, so I became a skeptical supernaturalistic atheist. I do not like to get myself painted in a corner that way.

    You will note that I see that there is God's realm, the materialistic realm, some sort of demonic realm, and a physical-sense-of-an-unseen-world-that-isn't-real "realm." There may be other realms, but I haven't had any contact with them. One could call God's realm and the demonic realm the realms of the "supernatural" and that innate sense as well as the physical universe the natural realm. But the innate sense is often lumped into the first two. I'm excited that we can investigate the innate sense now–I have thought it existed in the past and prayed that it would be shown to the world. (But it is not a proof or disproof of the existence of God.)

    BTW, say that we lived any time prior to the last, oh, 150 years, before scientific instruments that could record sound. I’m non-hearing, though I could hear the lower frequencies in my youth. You tell me birds sing. Can you prove it? I’ve never heard a bird sing and notice that people get into arguments about what constitutes “sing.” They even contradict each other. Should I believe in eyewitnesses? Why should I believe them if they can’t agree? Why should I believe you?

  6. Ian

    I think supernatural/spiritual and so on are labels. Often I think different folks use different labels to mean similar things. One persons super-natural is another’s spiritual, and another’s paranormal.

    It sounds to me that, while you reject the label of supernatural, you’re describing something similar to what some believers in the supernatural understand by that word.

    When I was a skeptical nihilistic atheist

    You were a nihilist? No wonder you came to Christ. Blimey, I’d rather be a Christian than a nihilist any day.

    I don’t believe in the supernatural, but in the spiritual realm. Science pertains to the material realm. Therefore, God’s domain doesn’t shrink, but becomes better defined.

    Are you saying that the spiritual realm and the material realm are mutually exclusive then? Something in one is, by definition, not in the other?

    It appears you have the kind of ontological category that I was initially trying to describe, before my wife’s response.

    You tell me birds sing. Can you prove it?

    Not sure what this is supposed to be asking. Can you prove anything outside the realm of a formal system? If you mean can you amass enough evidence to conclude that it is unlikely they don’t sing? Yes, I’d say so. So what?

  7. muddleglum

    “You were a nihilist? No wonder you came to Christ. Blimey, I’d rather be a Christian than a nihilist any day.”
    As I wrote, “I became a skeptical supernaturalistic atheist.” I became a theist later when I sat down to read to the Bible to prove the Christians wrong. A being got into a discussion with me and cornered me (again) over a period of about three or four months. I either had to accept that I was wrong that there was no God, or commit intellectual suicide. Later I understood enough to become a Christian for certain.

    Sorry about the supernatural definition problem. I thought I clarified it when I went back to edit. Seems like I made it worse. I’ll leave it at, ” God’s domain doesn’t shrink, but becomes better defined.”

    “the spiritual realm and the material realm are mutually exclusive then? Something in one is, by definition, not in the other?”
    Yep. I’m not sure about the interface, though. I heard God speak verbally once, but I was more than 96% deaf by then. Yet it was clear. So it was not a normal acoustic phenomenon. Nor was it the same phenomenon that shows up in MRI in the brain, I’m sure. I’m basically non-religious, believe it or not.

    “birds sing”
    Beside the point now, mainly. Merely pointing out that in the past science made use of trained observers. The legal system still makes use of observers that aren’t trained. Thus one cannot ignore observers, as you implied in a comment in the earlier blogpost.

  8. Ian

    Thanks for the responses. Interesting.

    “I’d rather be a Christian than a nihilist any day.” No.

    Sorry, my rather flat attempt at humour there. It immediately reminded me of the line in the Big Lebowski “Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

    “Thus one cannot ignore observers, as you implied in a comment in the earlier blogpost.”

    I’m not sure where, but I’m sorry if I did, that doesn’t reflect my viewpoint. I definitely think religious or supernatural experiences are significant data in trying to understand things. In fact, for religious or supernatural experiences they are the only data we have, since we cannot access these phenomena other than psychologically (by which I mean that the human mind/senses are the only system that perceives them).

  9. “I suspect that believers in the supernatural are less willing to try to find out (supernatural belief seems to often go hand in hand with a belief that calling something supernatural explains something). “

    This caveat of yours got me thinking of the Degrasse-Tyson talk from a while ago of how putting a supernatural explanation in place tends to stop inquiry. He goes through a history of mathematicians I think, each putting God in place of “I don’t know” and then stopping their work and investigations. Finally someone says (I forget the name, he might have been French): “I do not require that hypothesis.”

    I think I’d agree pretty strongly with your wife. The subjective nature of our understandings, and the limitations of our subjective natures, does very little for the strong desires some of us have for explanations. Mystery can really bother some people. So much so that even rickety invention is better than gaping void.

  10. Ian

    Thanks Andrew. I don’t think I’ve come across that talk – I’ll search for it now.

  11. My over-enthusiasm kind of got the better of me, and so I tracked down the link. 🙂


    It’s more of an attack on intelligent design than anything else, I forgot about that. But the first 20 min has the history of great thinkers stopping their investigations and invoking god at points where they shrug their shoulders and “don’t know”. And it was Laplace that didn’t need the god-hypothesis, finishing some work Newton left unresolved.

    In usual IDT fashion, he’s having fun and getting excited with important ideas that really need to be shared and heard.

  12. oops, forgot to mention that it doesn’t address supernatural stuff per se, so it’s a slight divergence from the original topic.

  13. Ian

    On topic, be damned, interesting stuff knows no boundaries! Thanks.

    IDT – what’s the I? or was that a typo?

  14. 🙂 another oops — yea typo. Inconsistent editing efforts. Bringing the enthusiasm down to controllable levels…

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