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.