Defining natural and supernatural

I get frustrated with those who talk about “naturalism”, the “supernatural”, “materialism”, etc., without defining their terms. And this goes for both the supporters and opponents of science. Why talk about “methodological materialism” and “metaphysical materialism” if you don’t, first, make clear what you mean by this.

So I was pleased to read the article Natural and supernatural again posted in the Metamagician and the Hellfire Club blog. It says, in part:

“Once again, the point needs to be made that we don’t have clear, agreed, definitions of the words “natural” and “supernatural”. This is not a surprising fact. These are ordinary English words, used on a daily basis in informal discourse. We know that the words used in this way, in ordinary language, are typically quite fuzzy.”

“Discussion of whether science can investigate “the supernatural” often seems to involve one party or another to the discussion assuming that “supernatural” has a clear meaning, when it simply doesn’t. There are various phenomena that are commonly called “supernatural”, but it’s not really clear what they have in common.”

“Perhaps some clear definition of “physicality” or “body” can be given, and people who call themselves “naturalists” can claim to be rejecting the “supernatural” when they reject the existence of minds that are totally without any physicality or embodiment. However, it would be unusual to find anyone who believes in the existence of such “supernatural” minds while claiming that they have no power to influence the physical world in ways that can be sensed. If a “supernatural” mind has the power to interact with the physical world, then we can study it. We can’t study its physical substance, of course, if it has no physical substance, but we can study its powers, its behaviour, perhaps its motivations. Its non-physicality may limit the conclusions we can draw about it, but as long as enough is asserted about what it does we can certainly study whether there is evidence for or against the claim that it exists.

Thus, on one definition of “the supernatural”, it is not beyond science to examine any claims at all about the supernatural.”

“When we say that science deals with the “natural”, while religion deals with the “supernatural” we need to define our terms (reasonably) clearly, then use them consistently. If we define the “natural” so that it means “everything” then it will turn out to be the case that science can deal with whatever turns out to exist, but that tells us nothing about what sorts of things actually do exist. It leaves open the question of whether gods and ghosts exist, for example. If they do, then it suggests that science can deal with them.

Whenever we debate what can be investigated by science, whether science and religion are compatible, whether the existence of entities typically referred to by religions (such as gods) can be studied scientifically, and whether those things exist at all, it would be helpful if we made a conscientious effort to use the various terms consistently and to take note of how others define their terms if they bother to do so. This is difficult to do – language is slippery, and a point comes where it is too demanding to cross every single “t” and dot every single “i”. Nonetheless, it is not playing games. It is important that we do this to avoid trapping ourselves in prisons of words, drawing conclusions that are not justified by the facts. It would also help us avoid a lot of distracting emotional attacks that merely make the debate more difficult to keep under control.”

The article is quite helpful – worth reading.

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17 responses to “Defining natural and supernatural

  1. FYI…several articles in the latest issue of “The Evolutionary Times” relate to the issue of what some of us (those who identify with Evolution Theology) mean by natural and supernatural: http://evolutionarytimes.org/

  2. In case it’s not obvious: I’m a naturalist, a materialist, an evolutionary humanist. I’m not a theist in any traditional sense. There is nothing spiritual, mystical, otherworldly, supernatural, or woo woo in my book or in my public programs. Everything I speak or write about is grounded in our best empirical, science-based understanding of cosmic, Earth, biological, and human history.

    My main goal in “Thank God for Evolution” (which has been endorsed by 5 Nobel laureates and lots of other scientists) is to help usher religious people into an evidential, naturalist worldview.

    It seems to me that we’re screwed as a species if this doesn’t happen relatively quickly.

    Ken, if you’d like a copy of my book, let me know your mailing address and I’d be happy to send you one. My email address is Michael(AT)ThankGodforEvolution.com

    Keep up the great blogging!

    ~ Michael

  3. Hey Michael, I heard your interview on Point of Inquiry a while back and really enjoyed it. I liked the fresh perspective.

  4. Thanks, Damian. Yes, I loved that interview. Connie downloads all the Point of Inquiry interviews onto her iPod and we listen to them as we travel North America. D.J. Grothe is the best!

    ~ M

  5. Heraclides

    Michael,

    If you are “thanking G-d”, then surely by definition you are a more-or-less conventional theist and more importantly you have “spiritual, mystical, otherworldly, supernatural, or woo woo” beliefs? (As a belief in “G-d” itself falls in that category.) Besides, you claim of yourself that “I am a Christian naturalist” (my emphasis).

    Getting back to the actual subject of Ken’s article, to me one thing that is unhelpful is defining supernatural as “not being able to addressed by science” or words to that effect. It seems to me that a definition like that seeks to excuse the “supernatural” from study or being questioned, rather actually define what is actually meant by ‘supernatural’.

    To me personal, supernatural is tantamount to, or a synonym for, ‘mythical’, ‘magic’, and so on, as I wrote on this blog quite some time ago.

    I actually don’t think it’s worth defining further than being a synonym for ‘not existing’, ‘mystical’, etc., as ‘supernatural’ is then a label saying ‘does not in really exist’ and so we can stop at that point and not deal with anything that is asserted to be ‘supernatural’. Note that this does mean it can’t be studied, but for a reason defined in terms of itself “not exists”, rather than what can be perceived as an excuse “not by science” After all, why “not any means”?

    My thesaurus concurs, for what it’s worth, although the dictionary annoyingly includes defining supernatural as “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature”, rather than simply “a thing, event or process not considered to exist in actuality”. To me the dictionary definition to me is rather silly on a number of accounts. It’s a moving target: what is known to science changes. It fails to distinguish ‘unknowable’, ‘unexplainable’ (i.e. ever) from ‘currently unknown’, ‘currently unexplainable’: the former appears to be what most people mean by the word; the latter is often considered ‘currently unresolved’, even by those who believe in “supernatural” things. For example, the ability of the “swine flu” to mutate is currently unknown to science, but I’d think very few people would consider that “supernatural”, they’d more simply consider it unresolved and that in time it will be resolved.

    I go have to go and cook dinner… so I get to stop here!

  6. Supernatural, Prenatural, and Unnatural

    How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural — they were prenatural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, IMHO it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive.

  7. Heraclides, if you care to, you can see from the links below that my perspective is anything but conventional, and that your assumptions about where I must be “by definition” are mistaken. I assure you that Skeptic’s Michael Shermer would not have had such a positive reaction to my book, nor would Richard Dawkins have let me reprint his letter to Juliet as Appendix A, if I was offering a view such as you imagine that I hold. This is a new perspective that, I promise, you’ve not seen before.

    PRAISE FROM OTHER SCIENCE LUMINARIES
    http://thankgodforevolution.com/node/1460

    ENDORSEMENTS FROM 5 NOBEL LAUREATES
    http://thankgodforevolution.com/nobel

    RESPONSE FROM RELIGIOUS LEADERS (By Affiliation)
    http://thankgodforevolution.com/node/1532

  8. I had no idea that the word “supernatural” could be so difficult to define. My “Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained” defines the word as meaning: “Something that is above or beyond nature and any naturalistic explanation or understanding.” In my opinion, that means simply something that science can’t explain. If science explains it, then it’s no longer supernatural. The definition also doesn’t explicitly state that it has to be something that scientists don’t believe in, just that it is beyond explanation. It might be something that is generally regarded as true, so long as there is currently no natural explanation for it.

    Heraclides, the definition for “supernatural” couldn’t possibly be the one you’ve suggested. “Not considered to exist” is just the kind of terminology that this post is trying to get us away from. Not considered to exist by who exactly? There are plenty of people the world over, scientists included, who believe in one thing or another that could be termed supernatural. I think your dictionary has the definition spot on – it is something that is beyond scientific understanding. The very fact that, as you quite rightly point out, what is known to science changes, means that something considered supernatural today might be considered perfectly natural tomorrow, as has happened countless times in science throughout history.

    Just to complicate matters a little bit more, the same dictionary refers me to the almost interchangeable term “preternatural”, which is something that is outside or violates God’s natural order. “God”, therefore, can’t be described as preternatural – and nor can angels, daemons, or creationist theory (as opposed to evolution, which presumably is preternatural). Perhaps that’s why we use “supernatural” more often these days?

  9. Heraclides

    I haven’t time to read your links, hence why I asked the question. (I’m extremely busy: while I can type reasonably fast, I haven’t time to track quotes etc. back to their sources, get the context, etc., etc.)

    I’m not trying to nitpick in writing that, but your links don’t appear to address what I asked. You seem to claim to have no “non-natural beliefs”, but also to have religious beliefs, which by definition have “non-natural” beliefs: a complete contradiction in terms as far as I can see. Hence my question. I was asking that you clarify, because I can’t see how you can have both. Quotes from others about something you have written elsewhere don’t answer this, really.

    For example, if you don’t mean the phrase “thank G-d” literally or in any religious sense, or have no belief in “G-d”, you could just say that. On the other hand, if you are a Christian, and/or believe in a G-d, as you seem to be claim to, then surely by definition you must have “spiritual, mystical, otherworldly, supernatural” etc. beliefs.
    By the way, in your previous post, I think you mean preternatural ;-)

  10. Heraclides,

    Sorry, I suspect this will be my last post for quite a while as I’m on a writing retreat on the coast of Maine and must attend to other things.

    The links were included not for you to read, but simply to scan. I have no religious beliefs whatsoever AND the perspective I offer is deeply meaningful and religiously inspiring for most people.

    I spend two chapters talking about what I do and do not mean by the word “God”. I also discuss this in three separate posts in my latest Ezine: http://evolutionarytimes.org/

    Finally, no, I did not mean preternatural. I meant pre-natural. Before we could possibly have had a natural, factual, measurable understanding. Like trying to understand the structure of the universe before telecscopes. Cultures may have had supernatual sounding language (like dream experience would be supernatural if we could actually do in real life what we dream about). But so-called supernatural stories and explanations are, in reality, PRE-natural.

    Co-evolutionarily,

    ~ Michael

  11. Nightshade @ May 12, 2009 at 1:13 am
    I find your definition ambiguous:

    “In my opinion, that means simply something that science can’t explain. If science explains it, then it’s no longer supernatural. The definition also doesn’t explicitly state that it has to be something that scientists don’t believe in, just that it is beyond explanation. It might be something that is generally regarded as true, so long as there is currently no natural explanation for it.”

    Scientists investigate things because we don’t understand them. This implies that scientific research is all about the “supernatural”. (Contrasting with the body of established knowledge which science does understand).

    There is an implicit assumption that even though we don’t understand a phenomena – it is potentially capable of being understood (not necessarily meaning we will ever reach that understanding for all things in a finite time).

    Now you talk about “supernatural” meaning “it is beyond explanation.” How can we possibly say that about anything? To me it is arrogant to claim (without any supporting evidence) that something is “beyond explanation.” It is arrogant because it is claiming something you can’t possibly know.

    Nightshade – you contradict yourself by saying the “supernatural” “is something that is beyond scientific understanding.” And then you say: “The very fact that, as you quite rightly point out, what is known to science changes, means that something considered supernatural today might be considered perfectly natural tomorrow, as has happened countless times in science throughout history.” So how can something be “beyond scientific understanding” but then capable of being understood when we look at it?

    Your are using “supernatural” with 2 different meanings. And the problem is that one meaning (“beyond scientific understanding”) is really meaningless, implying a knowledge one can’t have and as a claim is really arrogant.

    Some people may use the word “supernatural” more often these days – but it is very often used to confuse rather than clarify things.

  12. Nightshade ,

    You’ve missed my point: try re-reading my complete post. You’ve focused one one bit to the exclusion of the whole. Ken’s reply captures much of what I wrote, but a few nice points.

    There are plenty of people the world over, scientists included, who believe in one thing or another that could be termed supernatural.

    That doesn’t say anything either way: people who compartmentalise have these separately.

    I think your dictionary has the definition spot on – it is something that is beyond scientific understanding.

    I pointed out why it doesn’t work and gave an example. Ken has taken this further. Dictionaries aren’t faultless and they can have cultural biases or cling onto older meanings for too long too.

    The definition I gave is from the dictionary on my computer. Looking at my “proper” dictionary—the Shorter OED—it gives a far better definition. (If you’re not familiar with it, the “Shorter” Oxford, is only shorter with respect to it’s full-blown counterpart which is about a dozen volumes from memory: the Shorter is two large volumes in small print: big, not small!) The OED definition makes no reference to science and in fact says that the use of the word to refer to “supernatural beings” is considered “now rare”. I can’t help but think that part of the issue will be cultural: the dictionary on the computer is American, etc., the USA has this largish fundamentalist Christian sub-culture, etc.

    means that something considered supernatural today might be considered perfectly natural tomorrow, as has happened countless times in science throughout history.

    Historically that might have been be true, but most people I know distinguish between unknown as in “does not exist” sense and unknown as in “unresolved”. The USA-based dictionary definition I gave messes these two up; the OED is a bit clearer.

    “preternatural” isn’t with respect to G-d at all, by the way: it’s used in a non-religious sense usually. You seem to want “add” G-d in there… Shows up your bias and that you are taking your argument too far ;-)

    I think you’d find the resolution is that religious people use the USA dictionary definition for the reason I pointed out: not because it defines anything in particular, but because using the term to excuse themselves from having to question their religious beliefs.

  13. Ken,

    Very good points, I’m sorry for being ambiguous. I think, actually, you’re agreeing with what I meant to say, but I don’t think I said it very well.

    Scientists, indeed, investigate the things that they can’t explain. This leads to understanding and explanation. Therefore, once something has been investigated, explained and understood it’s no longer “supernatural”, even though it might have been before.

    You say that it’s arrogant to claim that something is beyond explanation – I totally agree with you. It’s not only arrogant, it’s also counter-productive. To consign something to the realm of “beyond explanation” is just to brush it under the carpet where it can’t teach us anything about how the world works.

    I can see why those two statements look contradictory to you, but I didn’t see the phrase “beyond scientific understanding” in the same way as you seem to have done. To me, “beyond scientific understanding” doesn’t mean that it is something science CAN’T understand, but merely what it DOESN’T understand. Not “beyond the understanding of scientists”, but simply “beyond the understanding of science”. Science itself has a certain level of knowledge and understanding, made up of laws and theories. Something that doesn’t fit into those laws and theories would be “beyond scientific understanding” – ie out of reach. When scientists investigate something that doesn’t seem to fit with the laws and theories, they are investigating something that is “beyond scientific understanding”, and if they can explain it with a new or modified law or theory, which is then accepted by science as a whole, that thing is no longer “beyond scientific understanding” but “within scientific understanding”.

    Once again, I apologise completely if I seemed ambiguous or arrogant, that wasn’t my intention at all. I just read the article and felt that I could add something to the discussion, being from a less scientific (but no less open minded) background.

  14. Heraclides,

    More apologies necessary, it seems. Sorry for misunderstanding what you had to say, again not my intention and you’ve pointed out my mistakes clearly (I feel well and truly ticked off, lol).

    Actually I have absolutely no interest at all in putting God in there, and I try not to have any bias at all. I’m open to the idea of God (I’ve seen no proof either way), but I’m not what you’d call a believer. I was merely quoting from my dictionary which says “…something that was outside or which violated ‘God’s natural order’…”.

    I still think that your definition wouldn’t work, because it suggests that the “thing, event or process” in question is considered not to exist, without stating who or what authority regards it as non-existant. That raises all kinds of issues, and is only likely to make people clam up and believe in it more. What you want to do is make people open to the idea that what they’re believing in is false, and the only way to do that is by investigating with a mind open to the possibility (and I mean possibility, no matter how small that possibility might be) that it is in fact true. People, of course, will still believe in it, no matter how much proof you offer to the contrary, but people are people and they’ll have their beliefs. By telling them that what they believe in is “not considered to exist in actuality”, they will assume (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) that it’s not considered to exist by science. That’s what pitches believers and scientists against each other when really they should be working together.

    Again, apologies everyone if I came across as the enemy. I wasn’t trying to insult anyone, just put my own opinion in there.

  15. Nightshade, I appreciate that you may not mean what you appeared to. But, I still think it is best to keep away from statements implying that there are things that science can’t understand, or beyond the understanding of science. You may well have a clear appreciation of the fact that your statement only applies to the here and now. But there are plenty of people out there who claim that there are things beyond our understanding – meaning always beyond our understanding. These people usually want to “fence off” an area for religion – and then tell us all about their god or heaven. Pretty arrogant after telling us these are in an area beyond our understanding.

    That is why I try to keep away form words like “natural”, “supernatural”, “materialism”, etc. they just get lapped up and distorted by those with a certain type of wishful thinking.

  16. Ken,

    I take your point completely, and as I said before I don’t think I expressed myself clearly the first time. I didn’t mean to come across as one of the type of people you describe, who I am totally aware do exist.

    Glad to see I expressed myself better the second time around.

  17. Heraclides

    Michael,

    The links were included not for you to read, but simply to scan.

    Rubbish ;-), you wrote: you can see from the links below that my perspective is anything but conventional, and that your assumptions about where I must be “by definition” are mistaken. You asked me to look for your reply in the links, but as I pointed out, a list of (unsourced) quotes isn’t a reply to what I asked.

    Your comment I have no religious beliefs whatsoever conflicts with your own statements, including calling yourself a Christian. It looks as though you have another variant of the “G-d of the gaps” arrangement, one where you have chosen to place religion prior to “natural”. This would seem to be a fairly ordinary variant of placing “G-d” at the Big Bang “creation of the universe” point to me, the only difference I can see is that you are trying to dress it up in different words/terms/labels or whatever you chose to call them.

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