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“”Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination.
“”To the scientist the word "supernatural" is a contradiction. Everything that is in the universe is natural; the supernatural is the natural not yet understood. And that which is called the supernatural is often the figment of a disordered, undisciplined or undeveloped imagination.
|—Elbert Hubbard (1905) Little Journeys to Homes of Great Scientists|
“”Anyone who can tap into the fourth spatial dimension (or what is today called the fifth dimension, with time being the fourth dimension) can indeed become invisible, and can even assume the powers normally ascribed to ghosts and gods.
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 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 things include magic rings, witch's brooms and Ouija boards. Supernatural substances include ectoplasm and ambrosia. Supernatural places include Valhalla; supernatural times include, Friday 13th, February 29th; supernatural forces, animal magnetism.
Supernatural explanations often 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. But supernatural explanations may involve impersonal influences: astrological aspect, pyramid power, aura, hot hand. Sometimes the distinction is difficult to draw, as with Lady Luck. Sometimes scientific concepts are borrowed in the service of the supernatural: Law of Averages, Information, quantum.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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 (currently) have a concept of the supernatural. And Westerners once paid a certain amount of attention to the preternatural as well, often defining magic and witchcraft (which most would now call supernatural) under this term. Some, such as Thomas Aquinas, defined it as unusual things which still happened because of a created being's (i.e. not God's actions), to distinguish them from miracles. After the Scientific Revolution, the term increasingly came to be used for abnormal phenomena that were still natural, before fading away entirely in common parlance.
Modern supernatural beliefs
Notwithstanding the advances of modern science and rationality, a vast number of supernatural beliefs remain, including 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, still do good business.
Nevertheless, although many traditional religious/supernatural beliefs are on the wane 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, the mysterious messages of pyramids or anything "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 attribute the mysterious to hidden supernatural intelligence (a god, daemon or spirit), pseudoscience practitioners, on the other hand, maintain that if only the scientific community would open its eyes to their wonderful knowledge, then their work should rapidly be accepted as no more than standard science. Nevertheless the overlap remains.
Can science test the supernatural?
A common line of thought is that science cannot test the supernatural. This is usually based on the reification of methodological naturalism and ignorance of philosophical naturalism. Methodological naturalism is the exclusion of supernatural explanations during scientific investigation.
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.
Contrary to this NOMA accommodationist nonsense, Fishman's "Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?" paper argues that the supernatural could be discovered and tested by science just like anything else. Prominent outspoken atheists, such as Richard Carrier (article here) and Victor Stenger (lecture slides here), have made similar points against the above quote.
However, in his 1905 book Little Journeys to Homes of Great Scientists Elbert Hubbard stated "To the scientist the word "supernatural" is a contradiction. Everything that is in the universe is natural; the supernatural is the natural not yet understood. And that which is called the supernatural is often the figment of a disordered, undisciplined or undeveloped imagination."
Elbert Hubbard's view of the supernatural was supported by Horace Mitchell Miner's darkly satirical 1956 paper "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" which took the then common methodology of looking at "primitive" peoples and casually dismissing their ways as "magic" and belief in the "supernatural" and turned it on the then current 1950s United States.
The result showed that with this mindset even the most scientifically-based technological advanced society could be portrayed as believers in magic and the supernatural:
- Chlorination of water to prevent disease is reduced to "the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure."
- The hospital with all its hard-learned scientific advances is reduced to a temple which "is where you go to die" with the nurses now "vestal maidens" and the doctors now "medicine men".
- Scientific medicine itself is reduced to "ceremonies" of "discomfort and torture" with "magic wands" (thermometers) and "magically treated needles" (antibiotics and medicines).
After this Horace Miner's fellow anthropologists got the hint and actually looked at magic. They discovered the only real differences between the magical world view and science was that magic didn't have a self-correcting mechanic nor a set procedure for determining which concept best fit what was being observed.
It should be mentioned that there were sciences that dealt with the supernatural and magic that have eventually gone ad hoc in their theories or fell apart when they encountered observations that could not be explained. These include astrology and thaumatology (which originally was study of miracles but has been expanded to mean science of magic itself, thaumaturgy).
All these sciences made testable, empirical claims. Ghosts, for one, are sometimes said to excrete ectoplasm and were suggested to be 4th dimensional beings by Cambridge Platonist Henry Moore in the 17th century. 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.
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. Similar claims are 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.
Richard Carrier argues supernatural should not be defined as "untestable" and "unexplained" as some have done. He instead advocates that it be the "irreducibly mental", to encompass bodiless minds, ghosts psychic powers, magic, miracles, gods etc and that there could be (or have been) testable claims of this kind. The issue in his view is therefore that claims such as creationism, rather than simply getting dismissed for being "supernatural", don't make testable claims, so they can't be called science (avoiding the philosophical wrangles about how to define this).
- Fun:Evidence for the existence of the supernatural Bingo
- Wishful thinking
- Parallel Worlds (2006) pg 142
- Justin L. Barrett. Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences – Vol. 4, No. 1, January 2000
- J. David Lewis-Williams. (2010) Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. Thames & Hudson, London.
- 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
- Supernatural in the Online Etymological Dictionary
- Nurit Bird-David. "Animism" Revisited. Current Anthropology Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? (February 1999), pp. S67-S91
- See the Wikipedia article on scientific communit.
- National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008.
- Yonatan I. Fishman, PhD .  Springer Netherlands, 2007.
- Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner, American Anthropologist, 1956, 58(3), 503-507.
- Bonewits, Isaac (1971) Real Magic; (2005) Authentic Thaumaturgy
- Per the print copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos pg 219 - "If a fourth-dimension creature existed it could, in our three-dimensional universe, appear and dematerialize at will, change shape remarkably, pluck us out of locked rooms, and make us appear from nowhere."
- George R. Price. Science and the Supernatural. Science 26 August 1955: Vol. 122 no. 3165 pp. 359-367
- Massimo Pigliucci. Testing the Supernatural. Rationally Speaking, Jul. 19, 2013.
- Larry Laudan. Commentary: Science at the Bar-Causes for Concern. Science, Technology, & Human Values Vol. 7, No. 41 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 16-19
- Defining the Supernatural