Supernatural

Supernatural literally means transcending the natural. Generally, it involves the belief in conscious forces that cannot ordinarily be perceived except through their effects. Sometimes it is used to characterize or explain events that people consider extraordinary (see also preternatural or paranormal).

A concept of the supernatural is generally identified with religion, 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). Generally, people contrast the supernatural with the natural and some believe that these two concepts are compatible or complementary (in other words, religion and science fulfill different but equally valid functions), while others believe that they are incompatible and in competition.

Nevertheless, many claims of supernatural phenomena often conflict directly and fundamentally with current scientific understanding.

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. Other events appear to be manifestations of a natural, explainable nature that are misinterpreted. Most religious people claim that these phenomena, being essentially "unnatural," are not appropriate for scientific study (see also William James, The Variety of Religious Experience).

The supernatural is also a topic in various genres of fiction, such as fantasy and horror. Some examples of supernatural phenomena are miracles, ghosts; psychic abilities like telekinesis and telepathy are better classified as paranormal than supernatural.

Table of contents
1 Arguments against supernaturality
2 Arguments in favor of supernaturality
3 "Supernaturalization"
4 The supernatural in monotheistic religions

Arguments against supernaturality

The following arguments are frequently cited against the existence of 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; this has been often attempted. However, once the physical laws by which an event occurs become known, the event is no longer classified as 'supernatural' anymore.

  • Supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur (cf. Occam's Razor), and 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 Ockham's Razor. Fundamental supernatural hypotheses are difficult to define, let alone test.

  • Neither science, mathematics, nor any other method can provably reveal Absolute Truth. Even the simplest logical inference depends on axioms. All observations depend on interpretations of external detectors or of our own fallible sensory organs. Dreams, feelings, and hallucinations are even less reliable, but are often cited as a basis for supernaturalism. To compensate for this limitation, mathematicians seek the simplest, most indispensable axioms. 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 work s written by human beings, that developed in a given historical and social context over a long period of time. Such books were influenced by a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, in which both Biblical writers, and later readers, attributed natural events to the will of God.

  • Because the truth of supernatural claims cannot be objectively tested, disputes about them often lead to schism and persecution. The philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed this out in his essay "An outline of Intellectual Rubbish":

The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.

  • Examples:
    • The Great Schisms among Christians were the culmination of centuries of disagreement concerning the powers of the Pope to decide doctrine. No objective standard for resolving these differences has been agreed upon, then or since. It may be argued, then, that only the abandonment of the competing supernatural claims can possibly lead to the resolution of differences.
    • The Thirty Years War was justified as a defense of inviolable privileges granted by God to the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic Emperor, over against the Protestant claims of God's grant of the rights of nations and of self-government according to the Bible.
    • For centuries, Christians angered and frustrated by the refusal of Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah have considered the Jews to be especially guilty of the crucifixion of Christ, cursed and deserving of suffering (see deicide). Other folk-religious beliefs about alliances between the Jews and Satan, and similar terrifying conspiracy theories, have fueled hatred and cruelty toward the Jewish people, and have produced a special indifference to Jewish suffering.

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.

Arguments in favor of supernaturality

Following are some common counter arguments to the above.

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. Philosophers and theologians frequently have a lot to say about the emergence of so-called postmodernity, but on the whole they have yet to accept its implications, not least because it would put their own work in a wider context, as just one possible way among many others of understanding the nature of reality.

  • Proponents of supernaturalism claim that their belief system is more flexible. Their belief system allows them polyvalent diversity in terms of epistemology. For example, scientists accept the consensus that the Earth and universe are many billions of years old. Among members of the Christianity theological communities, however, there is a far wider range in terms of epistemological positioning, ranging from those who accept a literal interpretation of Genesis as normative and perceive the earth and universe as 6000 years old, to those who accept as normative the results of science and perceive the earth and universe as many millions of years old in terms of age.

There is similar epistemological diversity among members of the Christian theological communities vis--vis evolution, and some scholar of religion express the hope that the more nuanced and sophisticated range of belief-positioning available in terms of supernaturality may influence science. As the John Drane again observes vis--vis the centrally-positioned role of science in perpetuating normative ideologies of racism and xenophobia (Postmodernist drivel):

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.

"Supernaturalization"

The neologism supernaturalize, meaning "to make supernatural", is sometimes used to describe the process of ascribing supernatural causes to natural events. This process may also be referred to as mythification or spiritualization. Because the assumption of the skeptical reader is that supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur, their description is seen as the result of a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, thus, "supernaturalization".

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")

The supernatural in monotheistic religions

Many modern skeptical readers of the Bible hold that its authors gradually reinterpreted historical and natural events as miraculous or supernatural. The article on The supernatural in monotheistic religions thus concerns itself with the junction between monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the supernatural.


Supernatural is also the name of an album by Santana, released in 1999.




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