Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What Does "Supernatural" Mean? or Splitting Hairs, Part III

"The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike." John Stuart Mill


I'm having a very interesting discussion with David over at Sago Boulevard about the word "supernatural." My argument is that it is a word that religious and superstitious people use to dodge the evidence that what they believe in doesn't exist.

Let's start with a basic definition. Nature is, according to the relevent definition in Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary, "the external world in its entirety." That's pretty much how I would define it as well. Supernatural, on the other hand, means (1) "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil" or (2) "departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit.)"

We can toss out the second definition as irrelevant, because it's talking about appearences and attributions. The first I don't quite agree with, since nobody would call a galaxy so far away that we couldn't observe it "supernatural," although such a galaxy would fit this definition. So what do religious/superstitious people really mean by "supernatural?"

Maybe they mean "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable (even in theory) universe." This takes care of the parts of the universe that are too far away.

But if we carefully study even this revised definition, something will strike us. The word "beyond." "Beyond," according to m-w Online, means either (1) "on or to the farther side of : at a greater distance than," (2) "a : out of the reach or sphere of b : in a degree or amount surpassing c : out of the comprehension of," or (3) "in addition to : BESIDES."

Well, we've already ruled out 1 and 2a with our distant galaxy example. It seems like they must mean "beyond" in the sense of 2c or 3. Let's take them one at a time.

2c) Let's say that supernatural means "of or relating to an order of existence [out of [our] comprehension of] the visible observable (even in theory) universe." What does this mean? If the supernatural exists, even if we couldn't comprehend it, we should at least be able to observe it. Since when is observation limited by comprehension? I can observe a kid acting out "beyond" reality, meaning I can't comprehend how a human being could behave like that, but I'm still observing it. I can't comprehend in some senses the Big Bang, but I can still observe (indirectly) that it happened. I don't think we can use this sense of "beyond" to make "supernatural" mean anything.

3) Perhaps supernatural means "of or relating to an order of existence [in addition to or besides] the visible observable (even in theory) universe." This implies that supernatural beings reside someplace other than the universe. However, time and space are bound by the universe, so there is no "outside" the universe (or "outside" time.) Some scientists do hypothesise a "multiverse," where reality is made up of many universes, but it's a heavily criticed line of reasoning, and proponents of the "supernatural" surely don't mean "something that's natural, just in a different universe," anyway.

I'm left with the conclusion that "supernatural" doesn't mean anything more than "non-existent," or perhaps "fictional." In one sense, Huckleberry Finn could be said to exist, but I don't think that's what theists mean when they talk about the supernatural. "Supernatural" is a term applied to that which doesn't exist in an effort to make it seem like it does.

There's one more point I'd like to make, and that is that scientific claims are always extraordinarily detailed and concrete while religious ones tend to be vague and abstract. I think this is the case because detailed and concrete religious claims were too easily to disprove and the faithful have adapted. Now you'll very rarely see a falsifiable religious claim. (People raise the same objections about string theory, an area of exploration that many claim is not scientific because it's not falsifiable.)

18 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

as defined in the English portion of the SAT:caused miraculously or by the immediate exercise of divine power

some supernatural events in the Bible:
The Virgin birth
The healings of Jesus
Jesus' resurrection

there is no other way to explain these events except to say they were miraculous and supernatural.
It is the same way with other miraculous events in day to day life. People with cancer praying for a healing and then doctors scratching their heads when the cancer "disappears". How else do you describe an event like that?

July Al said...

Modern technology can duplicate all of these "miracles" with non-supernatural means:

1.Virgin Birth = Artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and cloning (soon).

2. Healing = surgery, antibiotics, antivirals, etc.

3. Resurrection = CPR, Defibrillators.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie Lou, I agree about the virgin birth, although I don't believe there was one. Tell me, when was it first mentioned?

Cancer goes into spontaneous remission sometimes. There's no reason to call it supernatural when there are a million potential material causes.

Jewish Atheist said...

as defined in the English portion of the SAT:caused miraculously or by the immediate exercise of divine power

Oh, and back to the topic at hand: this definition doesn't explain anything because "miraculous" and "divine" have the same problems that "supernatural" does.

Sadie Lou said...

Sadie Lou, I agree about the virgin birth, although I don't believe there was one. Tell me, when was it first mentioned?

When was the virgin birth mentioned? In prophecy--in the OT.

asher said...

Actually the virgin birth is nowhere mentioned in either the Old Testament or the New. However, if you believe that God "fathered" the infant Jesus and made Mary pregnant, you have to agree that God produced sperm and that half Jesus' DNA was human and rest was devine.

The virgin birth concept comes from a mistranslation from Isaiah. This mistranslation has caused the deaths of millions in Crusades, Inquisitions and Pogroms throughout the centuries. But, hey, who wants to split hairs?

Can't you we get back to evolution?

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie Lou, asher is right. The Hebrew uses the word "alma," which means woman, not virgin. "B'tula" means virgin and is used wherever "virgin" is meant. The verse in question was mistranslated.

Anonymous said...

Surely a good and experienced skeptic like yourself knows better than to say "scientific claims are always extraordinarily detailed and concrete while religious ones tend to be vague and abstract." (emphasis added) I think if you revise this statement to apply more generally, and not so exacting, you're onto something, because generally, this statement is probably true. But we all know of vague scientific claims and detailed religious ones. When you speak in hyperbole, your message loses some of its power for the same reasons that you claim that detailed religious claims are hard to hold.

What you're really getting at, again, is your complete disdain for religion, which unfortunately has blinded you to the facts that (1) not every person of faith is from whatever brand of Judaism it was that scarred you, and (2) not everything about religion is inherently bad, misleading or evil.

When you start to work through your own biases, this blog will truly ascend to great things. But you're still way, way off. Good luck.

Jewish Atheist said...

Surely a good and experienced skeptic like yourself knows better than to say "scientific claims are always extraordinarily detailed and concrete while religious ones tend to be vague and abstract."

You're right. I stand corrected. Let the statement now read "scientific claims are usually extraordinarily detailed and concrete while religious ones tend to be vague and abstract."

What you're really getting at, again, is your complete disdain for religion, which unfortunately has blinded you to the facts that (1) not every person of faith is from whatever brand of Judaism it was that scarred you, and (2) not everything about religion is inherently bad, misleading or evil.

I don't have complete disdain for religion. I simply think it's false.

(1) I wasn't scarred. And obviously I know "not every person of faith is from whatever brand of Judaism it was" since I'm quite often conversing with Christians on this very blog.

(2) Never said it was. In fact, if you'll look to the upper-right corner of your screen, you'll see in my profile that "I believe that Judaism has a lot of beauty and wisdom, but that it also causes harm."

David said...

[cross-posted in the comments to my post]

If you assume that all existence is physical, then of course the idea of supernatural existence is absurd. As you say yourself: "time and space are bound by the universe, so there is no 'outside' the universe."

But God isn't in space and time. God's existence is of an entirely different mode. "Supernatural" might as well be simply a manner of speaking. When I say God exists "outside of nature" I don't just mean some place outside of space-time. You're right in noting that it wouldn't make much sense. What I mean is that God's existence is of a fundamentally different kind. How we know anything about God is another issue. The point here is that you can't argue against theism by harping on the word "supernatural".

It comes down to the fact that you're using the wrong measuring stick for theology. When you demand "evidence" for God, you mean scientific evidence. When you claim that Barr's approach "conveniently moves God outside of falsifiability", you mean from a scientific perspective.

But there isn't scientific evidence of God in the way that there is evidence for photosynthesis, for example. The evidence for God is in the ability of the religious story to explain the totality of existence.

While you can explain the world as we know it without appealing to God, I find the religious account to be more compelling. Obviously, you don't agree but my point here isn't to argue that religion is right, but only that it's not wrong by virtue of science. You can't point to a scientific discovery as evidence that there is no God. But this doesn't mean that God isn't falsifiable. What would "rule out the religious conception of the world" - to answer your earlier question - is a theory that simply does a better job of explaining things. I don't mean explaining how physical things work - that's science's job. I mean explaining what they're doing here at all and what their purpose is. If religion is wrong, then it's wrong because it fails to give an adequate account of the world, its nature, and its purpose.

CyberKitten said...

David Said: If religion is wrong, then it's wrong because it fails to give an adequate account of the world, its nature, and its purpose.

Prosecution rests..........

Shlomo said...

Spinoza did away with the need for Scholasticism as a way of justifying the supernatural. With his "Deus sive Natura" (God/Nature), he equated the physical Universe with a 'god'; it creates us from within itself, we operate wholly with it, we cannopt escape it, and we return our identity back to it with our constituent parts.
I am a naturalist. I am a Spinozist.

The Stoics and Epicureans, though very different from each other, knew that 'gods' were metaphoric for proto-men or representational of natural forces that were beyond the control of man (and still are), little understood, and therefore in practical terms a sort of 'god'.

It appears that the pagans of the past have a much better handle on things than some of the believers of today.

Shlomo said...

re:String Theory

In Taoism they say that the "Map is not the territory." Studying the map doesn't relate the experience of traversing the terrain in person.

So too in Theoretical Physics. The "Math is not the territory." Klein-Kaluza and the various other String Theories, even when mathematically sound, still require evidence and the ability to predict events based upon those findings. Mathematics is the 'telescope' we use to 'look' into the possibilities, based upon the current understanding that our Universe is ordered.

Unlike religion, science changes its 'mind' when new evidence comes to light. Like life, it grows and changes. The method, however, is the genius of the Science.

Jewish Atheist said...

What I mean is that God's existence is of a fundamentally different kind.

It seems to me that the supernatural has been defined in such a way that it's impossible to disprove. Basically, you're hypothesizing that there's an entire dimension to reality that we can't detect.

I'll concede that the term "supernatural" is not, in the end, synonymous with non-existence. However, it does seem to be the ultimate in ad hoc reasoning.

If religion is wrong, then it's wrong because it fails to give an adequate account of the world, its nature, and its purpose.

It does fail - science gives a more accurate account of the world and it's nature, and "purpose" is assuming what you're trying to prove.

Sadie Lou said...

Sadie Lou, asher is right. The Hebrew uses the word "alma," which means woman, not virgin. "B'tula" means virgin and is used wherever "virgin" is meant. The verse in question was mistranslated.

That depends on who you're talking to, doesn't it? If it were as black and white as all that: The case would be closed on the virgin birth, but it's not.
I have seen what appears to be solid, concrete, evidence and study from both side of the issue--of course I'll always lean towards what supports my belief as you will lean towards yours.

Sadie Lou said...

From David's website:The belief in a God outside of nature thus allows the religious scientist to examine the natural world objectively, without needing to interject supernatural assumptions. In other words, God created a natural world that operates according to certain laws which are observed and studied by scientists.

I'm not defining "supernatural" by what it isn't. Let me be clearer: "supernatural", in this context, refer to a Creator who exists outside of the world He created. You may believe that no such being exists but the word "supernatural" itself doesn't imply that. Once again, the article is not about whether materialism is true or whether God exists.


I thought this was a very good explanation of what we are discussing here and thought it would prove useful in this conversation...
Thanks David.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie Lou said: I thought this was a very good explanation of what we are discussing here and thought it would prove useful in this conversation...

Interesting interpretation. It gets around some of the 'God in The Universe' problems and is fully dependent on faith (as no proof is either offered or required). Clever.

It will also be acceptable to some groups and rejected by others - so doesn't really get us anywhere new.

Nice try though.....

Jewish Atheist said...

I have seen what appears to be solid, concrete, evidence and study from both side of the issue

Maybe you can explain what the other side of the issue is.

Here's what I found in an online concordance:

In Psalms 68:25, the KJV translates the Hebrew alma (or 'almah as the concordance transliterates it) into "damsel" -- "The singers went before the players on instruments [followed] after; among [them were] the damsels playing with timbrels."

Exodus 8:2 and Proverbs 30:19 it translates alma as "maid."

In Song of Songs 1:3, 6:8, Genesis 24:33, and Isaiah 7:14 (the verse in question) the KJV uses "virgin." Why the discrepency? In none of these places is there any evidence that "virgin" is the intended meaning. The KJV is injecting its own beliefs into the translation.



:The belief in a God outside of nature thus allows the religious scientist to examine the natural world objectively, without needing to interject supernatural assumptions.

If this is true, religious people must accept evolution.