Essay:The supernatural can't exist

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The supernatural can't exist.

It seems like a fairly obvious statement at first glance, prett much by definition the supernatural can't exist. That's the point, it's beyond reality as we see it or feel it. From gods to ghosts, the supernatural lies outside our realm of experience and perception; and this is even an aid to believers, who firmly state that their beliefs lie outside reality and are therefore immune to scrutiny by science that is supposedly limited by the physical world. The argument follows that atheists or skeptics or materialists are completely barking up the wrong tree when acting dismissively of gods and goddesses or concepts such as immortal souls to telepathy - how can you disprove something when it lies completely beyond the real and therefore beyond science? While a nice argument for a novice intellectual who wants to appear to be free of the boring old real world, or who wants to open their mind to infinite possibilities, further analysis of this concept (taking it to its logical conclusion) produces an entirely different result.

First, let's examine what "beyond reality" must mean. Disregarding any arguments about things being "real" if we're thinking about them or if they exist in documents or cultural memory (we're talking a tangible, objective existence that is independent of thought) it must mean that something "beyond reality" lives outside the universe, it can never and will never be detected in the phsyical universe or by the physical universe. This means that no stuffy scientist will ever disprove its existence, as experiments can't touch it or taste it or measure it. Not only can it not be detected, but it never has been detected and never will be detected - and "detected" is the key word from now on. Importantly this is in principle and is independent of practicalities; it may be impractical or impossible to fire a probe into the middle of the sun to gather some hydrogen, but that doesn't, a priori, preclude the possibility of it happening - this would presume too much about the future and our future abilities. A few historical examples relate to this principle; people used to think we'd only ever travel less than about 30 miles per hour, but Thrust SSC broke the sound barrier on land in 1997 and its successor should break 1000 mph in a few years time, and besides, orbiting spacecraft go an order of magnitude above this. Wireless communications, atmospheric simulations and cures for diseases all seemed outside the realms of possibility even a few mere decades before their development, so by extension we can't predict what we will be able to do if technological progress goes on unhindered. We presume to much by saying that something beyond science in practice is the same as beyond science in principle. So, in principle, we can detect anything that is in reality as we know it, it may be in another dimension (if we do discover so-called "parallel dimensions") or back in time (time travel, you never know) but the bottom line is that parts of reality can detect other parts of reality - and the process of reality detecting reality is what we call "science".

Now back to the concept of something being "outside" of reality, yet still existing. There are two ways to proceed with this, the first is fairly simple, but interesting, case of semantics. Take ghosts, for example. All evidence points out that ghosts do not exist, thus believers put them "beyond reality" by calling them supernatural, fair enough. However, what if it was eventually discovered that ghost do exist? Going back to the principle described above, observing them makes them quite, quite real and then we can use these observations to get more information. Even merely discovering that they did exist would be enough to change them from "super" natural to just natural; they would be an extension of physics that had previously lain undiscovered. What if we measured them, figured out what they were made of (some extremely exotic form of matter or energy), how the consciousness stayed around to form a spectre? A whole new branch of science would be founded just to look at this new phenomenon and study it, and, based on the principle that reality can detect reality, ghosts would give up their secrets, they might widely differ from reality as we know it now, but that doesn't - in fact it can't - stop us, as the entire point of science is to change to best reflect reality. That's assuming we first demonstrated ghosts to exist, of course. This is a silly, but still quite important point, if something supernatural turns out to exist, it ceases to be supernatural pretty much by definition. But what of things that can't be demonstrated, the things that True Believers say will always be beyond reality, even in principle as well as practice?

This requires, first of all, an assumption to be made - thus forming a crude but fairly sound "proof from contradiction" that is similar, but distinct to the above. Let's assume that something can exist outside the universe and let's also assume it does affect us - a God, a ghost, the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you will. These beliefs are nothing if they can't somehow affect us. If a God, however supernatural "in person", affects the universe as we know it we should be able to detect its presence indirectly. Atoms in DNA being pushed around in strange ways, mountains growing, miraculous healing pretty much anything that is a blatant violation of physics that we know of would be potential evidence. And a blatant violation of physics is what it would have to be, if a God manipulated the world to make it look natural, what would be the point? Such observations haven't been made, so as a result we're looking very much that if some supreme being exists, it certainly doesn't push things around in this universe. People might cite "dark matter", "dark energy" as examples, but this sort of paradigm shift in cosmology merely redefines what we know of the rules physics run by, but, in principle observations that point towards outside influence by a god could be made ("dark flow" might have been a contender for a time, but it is looking less likely by the day). In principle, based on observations of changes that are not explained (notably this is different from "not explained yet") we can make a clear statement "this must be the work of a god". But then, does this god retain the title of "supernatural"? After all, we can detect it, it must be real, as described above with the example of ghosts being discovered as real. We must be able to manipulate these things that we detect, run experiments (however crude) and develop hypotheses, theories and make more discoveries. Even if (and we have to bend over backwards to accommodate this possibility) the god was genuinely outside and beyond reality, its effects on the universe most certainly won't be. If effects can be observed and tested they form part of reality, so at least indirectly, the existence of anything supposedly supernatural can be demonstrated. This certainly isn't a one way street; they must affect the world and therefore can be observed. Therefore if something affects the world, it must be real, so we have arrived at our contradiction - something that is supposedly beyond reality, yet it can be detected - it can be detected by its supposedly supernatural properties. If True Believers want to place their belief outside of reality and beyond science, in both practice and principle, then what they believe in must not, under any circumstances interact with reality in any way. And this is a pretty big problem for people who want to simultaneously believe that something is real and tangible, yet outside the realms of pitiful and closed minded science - you can't have your cake and eat it, so to speak - because if something can't have an effect, it may as well not exist. Indeed, you're assuming more than you need to by saying it exists despite it being unobservable. The hypothesised aether, for example, may or may not exist, but its effect on the world was predicted and tested and the test came out negative. To us, the aether doesn't exist because it produces no tangible effects on us, just as the unicorn standing in front of you right now doesn't exist because it doesn't produce observable results on you.

This isn't a disproof against the existence of gods, ghosts and psychic powers, just a demonstration that they must be observable and testable by science (and perhaps that so far evidence points very much against their existence); if anything just an outright disproof of the NOMA principle. In the end, nothing will shake True Believers, indeed, they'll continue to use the idea of something being "beyond science" as a defence pretty much forever. But rarely do any of them appreciate what such a statement really means, if they put it "outside reality" or "outside science" then they also very much put it outside existence and firmly inside their own imagination.