Supernatural

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Uh-oh, it's

 Magic 

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Trying to make a devil out of me
Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination.
Edward Abbey[wp][1]

Supernatural is an adjective which can refer to events, entities, or explanations, or to powers claimed to be possessed by certain individuals. What all these have in common is that is that they they do not conform to a naturalistic worldview.

Alleged supernatural events would include interventions by poltergeists or a God, virgin births, or miraculous healings. Injuries or illnesses of unknown origin may be blamed on supernatural causes, or curses.

Supernatural beings include gods, fairies, ghosts, spirits, and suchlike.

Supernatural explanations usually entail the interference of an alleged supernatural being to explain a real-world event. For example, the suggestion that the Christian God sent hurricane Katrina to punish the US for something or other.

Supernatural powers are those claimed to be held by people such as psychics, fortune tellers, dowsers etc. As with all claimed supernatural activity these powers have not been demonstrated.

Contents

[edit] History of supernatural belief

Supernatural beliefs may have arisen due to a variety of factors, such as the human tendency to seek explanation, pareidolia, and pattern recognition.[2] A strain of prey species whose threat detection system does a good job of spotting potential predators in the background clutter, but with some false alarms, survives better than a strain which does not startle easily, but occasionally misses a leopard in the trees. In other words, we were bred to be spooked by shadows. The inducement of altered states of consciousness may also have played a part.[3]

Although the precise nature of the earliest supernatural beliefs remains hazy and the particular contents of the earliest religions have proven elusive, archaeological remains allow us to to make some general speculations.

One of the earliest pieces of evidence for supernatural beliefs is the first known ceremonial burial at the Qafzeh Cave in Israel, dating to about 92,000 years ago.[4] Ceremonial burial presumably indicates that early humans had some concept of the afterlife and may also suggest some kind of ancestor worship.

Ceremonial burials such as the ones at Qafzeh, along with cave paintings and artefacts such as statuettes have been taken to imply that the earliest forms of religion were animistic in nature.[3] Specific gods, goddesses, and other supernatural entities are apparent in the mythology of early civilizations such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks.

Today science has provided answers to the origin of volcanoes, earthquakes and the rain, thus leaving the supernatural to find refuge in god of the gaps type ideas, the argument being that if science has not yet provided an answer then supernatural explanations are justified.

[edit] Origin and history of the term

The term "supernatural" itself did not come to be used until the 15th century and means, when translated literally from the Latin roots, "above nature."

In the original sense of the coinage, though, it had the connotation of something that was "of or given by god." By the 19th century, its usage had expanded to include other non-material mythical beings such as ghosts, demons, etc.[5] It is, however, worth noting that the natural/supernatural distinction is not universal. Some cultures such as the Nayaka (of India) and the Ojibwe do not have a concept of the supernatural.[6]

[edit] Modern supernatural beliefs

Notwithstanding the advances of modern science and rationality, a vast number of supernatural beliefs remain: this would include such traditional ideas as the belief in gods, ghosts and spiritualism. Furthermore, vendors of traditional supernatural services, such as tarot card readers, psychics, and astrologists, remain well-employed.

Nevertheless although many traditional religious/supernatural beliefs are on the wane[citation needed] they seem to be being replaced by new ideas about "spirituality" which may be linked to ideas such as magical thinking, the power of crystals, pyramids or "quantum".

As a consequence it may sometimes become difficult to draw a hard and fast line between the supernatural and full-on pseudoscience.

The difference can usually be found in the claimed agency: while truly supernatural believers will usually maintain that some hidden supernatural intelligence — a god, daemon or spirit — is at work; pseudoscience practitioners maintain that, if only the scientific community would open its eyes to their wonderful knowledge, then their work should be accepted as no more than standard science. Nevertheless the overlap remains.

[edit] Can science test the supernatural?

A common line of thought is that science cannot test the supernatural. This is usually based on the division between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism posits that supernatural explanations are automatically excluded from scientific investigation. This would seem to be evident in the definition of supernatural: "Above nature." In a report on creationism, the National Academies of Science affirm this view:

In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world.... Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.[7]

Does this, however, hold up in practice? If we take certain examples of the supernatural, they make testable, empirical claims. Ghosts, for one, are sometimes said to excrete ectoplasm. Astrology makes predictions about the alignment of the planets, personality and the future, albeit often deliberately vague. The force of psi alleged by parapsychologists is often conceived of as being a non-natural force. Indeed, the entire field of parapsychology is predicated on studying non-natural or supernatural forces in a supposedly "scientific" manner.[8]

By certain criteria of demarcation, such as Karl Popper's falsifiability, the above examples would qualify as science. Bad science, but science nonetheless. However, certain other formulations of the supernatural that evade being testable, such as Last Thursdayism or theistic idealism, would fall outside of science by this criterion. Similarly, believers in miracles or the power of prayer may evade testability. They can easily claim that god simply chose not to answer the prayers, or that testing god scientifically would be arrogant and that god would not respond in such a situation.[9] A similar claims is often made by psychics, who claim that skeptics give off "bad vibes" or "negative energy" that dampens their psychic powers when they are in a controlled experimental situation. These types of claims easily evade being disproven by scientific means.

Returning to creationism, it makes both testable and untestable claims. Clearly the former can be tested by science. Larry Laudan made this argument in his criticism of the logic behind the ruling of McLean v. Arkansas. He argues that the question of whether creationism is scientific or not is a red herring as there is no clear demarcation criteria. As Laudan writes:

Rather than taking on the creationists obliquely in wholesale fashion by suggesting that what they are doing is "unscientific" tout court (which is doubly silly because few authors can even agree on what makes an activity scientific), we should confront their claims directly and in piecemeal fashion by asking what evidence and arguments can be marshaled for and against each of them. The core issue is not whether Creationism satisfies some undemanding and highly controversial definitions of what is scientific; the real question is whether the existing evidence provides stronger arguments for evolutionary theory than for Creationism. Once that question is settled, we will know what belongs in the classroom and what does not. Debating the scientific status of Creationism (especially when "science" is construed in such an unfortunate manner) is a red herring that diverts attention away from the issues that should concern us.[10]

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. QuotationsBook
  2. Justin L. Barrett. Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2000
  3. 3.0 3.1 J. David Lewis-Williams. (2010) Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. Thames & Hudson, London.
  4. Ofer Bar-Yosef et al. Shells and ochre in Middle Paleolithic Qafzeh Cave, Israel: indications for modern behavior. Journal of Human Evolution Volume 56, Issue 3, March 2009, Pages 307–314
  5. Supernatural in the Online Etymological Dictionary
  6. Nurit Bird-David. "Animism" Revisited. Current Anthropology Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? (February 1999), pp. S67-S91
  7. National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008.
  8. George R. Price. Science and the Supernatural. Science 26 August 1955: Vol. 122 no. 3165 pp. 359-367
  9. Massimo Pigliucci. Testing the Supernatural. Rationally Speaking, Jul. 19, 2013.
  10. Larry Laudan. Commentary: Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern. Science, Technology, & Human Values Vol. 7, No. 41 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 16-19
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