The Existence of the Supernatural: An Unnecessary Assumption
by Ervin Taylor, August 8, 2016: SUMMARY This discussion considers the conjecture that there is only one type of reality which we here will simply call Reality. A centerpiece of this conjecture is that Reality is totally naturalistic. For theists, God, however this entity is conceived, inhabits this Reality just as humans and all other sentient beings in the universe/multiverse do. The “supernatural” does not exist. Only the “natural” exists.
We observe that the category of “supernatural” and the contrast between supernatural and natural is of relatively recent appearance in Western thought. It appears that this category was a unique conceptual invention appearing at the beginning of the transition in Western culture from the Medieval to Modern Era in the early 16th Century. What appears to have been the principal purpose of the natural/supernatural distinction was to create a space for the development of a new way of approaching the study of the physical world that occurred in the West in the early 16th Century. This new way of approaching how the physical world operated evolved into what came to be called the Western Scientific Revolution in the late 16th Century.
An important component of this conjecture is that only a very tiny fraction of Reality, as defined here, can currently be perceived by contemporary human observers directly or even with the current set of technologies which today can dramatically extend our observational capabilities. Perhaps, at present, the most serious problem may be that we, as yet, possess neither the necessary sensing structures nor cognitive systems that can process information that would be coming from all of the elements which constitutes Reality. It is possible that a part of this deficit may well include how the environmental sensing systems and brains of Homo sapiens are currently configured.
The goal for which the natural/supernatural paradigm was created has been fully realized. Because there is only one Reality, for both theists and non-theists, we posit that the supernatural can be retired as a theological category. We suggest that one of the positive results of adopting this point of view is that it is compatible with the rejection of the belief that humans possess a separate, non-physical soul that survives physical death.
A Superfluous Category
Several years ago, a physics colleague mentioned that a century ago in his field, there was posited the existence of something called the Ether or sometimes, the luminiferous Ether. The purpose of this substance was to provide a physical medium for the transmission of electromagnetic or gravitational forces.
Early in the 20th Century, a series of investigations − one of them the famous Michelson-Morley experiment − were designed to define more closely the nature of this assumed substance. All of these experiments failed to detect this supposed substance. In his 1905 paper outlining his Special Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein stated that he had rendered the existence of the Ether superfluous. It did not have to be invoked to explain anything about physical phenomena. After a short interval, the majority of his peers concurred and the Ether and the reality that it was supposed to represent were considered as being nonexistent. We might say that this nonexistent concept joined phlogiston, and later it is where non-existing entities such as N-rays and cold fusion were placed. Let us employ as a soft analogy what had happened to the concept of the Ether in physics to consider if the supernatural as a conceptual category in theology can be permanently retired from serious consideration. To put it bluntly, it never existed and does not now exist.
However, it is assumed that no one would dispute the assertion that this nonexistent category of “supernatural” has played and continues to play a major role in the religious conceptions advanced by many modern faith traditions, including most branches of Christianity. It’s probably safe to suggest that, in the view of representatives of traditional Christian religious communities, faithful adherents are expected to believe in two separate realms of reality: the natural and the supernatural.
Definitions: Natural and Supernatural
To initially frame this discussion, let us first consider definitions of these two terms. In the context of our topic, we first define natural from two perspectives and then present a single definition of supernatural.:
Natural is that which exists as a part of the physical or material world of entities of currently known, or as yet undiscovered, characteristics which have the current or potential capability to be observed and examined by human agency, either directly or indirectly, through a known or yet-to-be-developed set of procedures.
Let me quote the definition kindly suggested by a colleague in a discussion group, with additions by the writer in italics of additional elements that reflect the thesis being presented in this paper:
Natural is that which exists and is known to the senses and to science as currently constituted and conceptualized, or will be in the future constituted and conceptualized, about such categories as energy, space and time, operating exclusively as defined in terms of empirically derived processes, as currently known or as yet to be discovered.
In contrast to the natural, here is the definition of supernatural:
Supernatural is that which exists as the product of the actions of non-physical or non-material/non-physical beings, entities and forces of a superior order above the natural which have the capability to interact with and influence the physical or material world.
Non-Existence of Supernatural/Natural Distinction in Pre-Modern Western Thought
From a historical perspective, there appears to be no ancient Hebrew text suggesting, or even hinting, that the conception embodied in our current Western distinction between the natural and supernatural had ever been made. With only one possible exception, there also seems to be no evidence that this distinction ever occurred to any early Christian writer. The only possible exception are statements written by or attributed to Paul. What we today label as the separate categories of natural and supernatural were, among both the Hebrews and early Christians, totally fused into one undifferentiated category.
With regard to Medieval Christian literature, based on various secondary references and a discussion with a distinguished scholar familiar with this literature, it appears that no medieval writer addressed any topic where the natural was clearly distinguished from or contrasted with the supernatural.
The invention of the word supernatural to contrast it with natural has been traced to the efforts of several early Renaissance intellectuals in Italy and France to separate that which could be known and understood by humans, using only their unaided reason, from that which could only be known to humans as the result of special revelation from God, including that which is transmitted through special individuals.
It appears that the principal purpose of creating the natural/supernatural distinction was to clear a space where the study of the newly defined “natural” world could be pursued without reference to strong dogmatic beliefs derived from interpretations of texts of biblical writers or Aristotle or the dictates of the then-dominant religious authorities, whether Catholic or Protestant. The reality of the supernatural realm was not denied and traditional religiously derived beliefs were not challenged. The new theme projected by advocates of this age could be summed up succinctly in the justly famous comment of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) that “The Bible shows us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
The majority of the first generation of the new natural philosophers felt no need to challenge any traditional Christian doctrine and most lived as or declared themselves to be loyal communicants of whatever religious organization was dominant in the region where they lived. All they sought was to be left alone to do their newly defined work of explaining how the materialistic natural world functioned.
A scholar familiar with the literature of this period suggested that one of the earliest sources of the original form of the natural/supernatural distinction could well have been a French philosopher who happened also to be a member of the Roman Catholic clergy, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). Another possibility was an unknown member of the group of early 16th-Century French Philosophs — a set of “free-thinking” intellectuals who were known to have gathered around Gassendi in Paris.
Gassendi himself is best known to historians of science as one of the first European intellectuals to formulate the elements associated with what we now regard as a scientific approach to understanding how nature operates. He is also widely known by those familiar with the history of philosophy and theology for his efforts to reconcile ancient Greek Epicurean atomism with Christianity.
Supernatural as Superfluous Category
It is the thesis of this discussion that the category of the supernatural as generally conceptualized in most current traditional Western theological and religious communities is a superfluous category. To put this suggestion in a more concrete form, the category of the supernatural is unnecessary. It was conceived to solve a specific problem that no longer exists. Therefore, it is posited that we should consider working from the perspective that there is a single unitary reality — what some might then call natural reality. However, since what is being suggested here is that there is only one type of existence, we will label it as simply Reality.
It is probably immediately necessary to emphasize that a denial of the existence of such an unnecessary category traditionally labeled in modern Western thought as “the supernatural” does not necessary deny theism. The existence of God, however conceptualized in contemporary popular or formal theological discourse, for example as Tillich’s “Ground of Being,” is not necessarily called into question if one accepts the proposition that the supernatural does not exist as a category that explains anything about Reality as defined above.
Any suggestion that rejecting the existence of the supernatural automatically denies the existence of an entity to which, in English, the term God is applied, is rejected — or, to use an ecclesiastical term — any such suggestion is declared anathema. Some may not accept that proviso, so some further exploration of the details of this argument may be needed.
In an effort to be thoroughly transparent about the nature of what is being posited here, credit must be given to a distinguished theologian who read an earlier version of this paper and suggested that it might be helpful to state, without equivocation, that a logical consequence of a rejection of the natural/supernatural distinction means that, using the definition of natural employed here, God, however conceived by different schools of theists, would then have to be considered as a natural entity, as defined and stipulated in this discussion. The author is happy to confirm that this is the view being advanced here.
It is recognized that this point of view requires a reorientation of some of the classic Western characteristics assigned to the concept of God familiar to the general laity and which are contained in some historic Christian creeds. If one is to accept that the view being outlined here merits at least continued dialogue, a reorientation of the traditional conceptions and characterizations assigned to God certainly would seem to be necessary. For example, the best known among the general laity for characterizations of the Christian God have traditionally included, from a long list, the three “Omni’s” from the Latin word meaning “total, complete or perfect.” These characteristics are (1) Omnipotent, meaning “All-Powerful,” i.e., that this entity can do anything that he/she wants, if it can be done, (2) Omniscient, meaning “All-Knowing,” i.e., possessing perfect knowledge about what can be known, and (3) Omnipresent, meaning that the deity can be present in any place in the universe simultaneously. A fourth possible characteristic that might be added is “Omni-Loving.” There is the suggestion that at least one of these attributions might need to be highly nuanced, if not totally abandoned.
The need to reconsider the historic attributions that humans have attached to one or more human conceptualizations of the Christian God is similar to that which has been thought necessary because of the issues created by the theodicy problem. To refresh readers’ memories, this is the problem of reconciling the attributes associated with the Christian deity with the existence of evil. In considering all of the issues just noted, we need to remember that all of the attributes assigned to the Christian deity have been assigned by humans. None of these assigned attributes fell down from the sky from some presumed heavenly realm.
Returning to the thesis of this discussion, another well-regarded theologian confirmed to the author that the simple idea being advanced in this paper—the idea that the supernatural, as defined here, does not exist—could be aligned with a view expressed by theologians identifying with the Process Theology perspective. Clearly, it is stipulated that the manner and vocabulary which theologians of this school employ to advance this perspective is much more conceptually sophisticated. I have been informed that in Process Theology the idea expressed in a highly simplistic form here is treated in much more depth, structured with more conceptual rigor and placed in the appropriate philosophical and theological context. However, the author is gratified that the basic idea presented in this paper, in such a simple manner, has been considered previously by mainline professional theologians as something that is worthy of reflection.
Confirmation of Existence of a Natural Reality (= Reality)
In expanding somewhat on the thesis being presented, let us first affirm the postulate that the natural world exists independent of human perceptions. Part of that natural world is the “ordinary” reality of objects as currently detected by the human senses, with or without the enhancement afforded by various forms of currently known technology. However, it is stipulated that there are a number of conceptual and philosophical issues that require us to nuance many aspects of how the natural world is generally perceived by the sense organs currently possessed by Homo sapiens, as reported to the large brain of this habitually bipedal, largely hairless primate.
It is stipulated that there are many questions such as the degree to which what is actually “out there” is being detected by the currently constituted, aided or unaided human sensing systems. In the context of this discussion, two of the most important questions that need to be addressed are: (1) the nature of the extremely complex, multilevel, human physiological and neural processing of primary sense impressions, and, (2) the relationship between the coding of such experiences in human language systems and the means we have for correlating the language-coded individual’s sense perceptions to construct accurately the world external to the human organism.
In the context of this observation, there appears to be no accessible objective, i.e., publicly accessible methodology, to, on a one-to-one basis, map our sense impressions—aided and/or unaided by current or future technology—onto some hypothetical “bare” physical reality. We thus will stipulate that (1) we currently do not have direct access to that which exists, i.e., Reality and (2), all human perceptions of any part of Reality are interpreted or processed in multiple ways before the processing centers of the brains of humans become cognizant of them.
For purpose of this discussion, the significance of recognizing the problems of detecting the natural world because of the complexity of all of these interconnected perception and processing issues is stipulated. However, accepting all of these provisos, it is posited that there is no compelling publicly accessible data that would cause one to conclude that the natural world does not actually exist and is only a projection of the human brain.
On the basis of these arguments, we will then accept as a postulate that if a tree falls in a forest with no human observer, it actually has fallen. It is a fact of physical Reality. It is asserted that the lack of a human observer in the macro-world of nature is irrelevant to the reality of a perceived or inferred physical event or condition. (With regard to the relationships involved in the micro-world of subatomic physical entities such as quarks, these issues are totally beyond the ability and probably intelligence of the writer to understand the mathematics, or even appreciate the experimentally-confirmed reality of the quantum world.)
Stipulating the Existence of Critical Unknowns
Close readers of the definitions of “Natural,” which, in this discussion, is considered to totally encompass “Reality” as defined above, may have noticed the use of phrases such as “the current or potential capability,” “currently known or undiscovered characteristics” and “processes as currently known or as yet-to-be-discovered.” These phrases are important in the conceptualization of the thesis that only “The Natural” exists. This is because that, fundamental to the arguments presented here, is the view that the physiological and cognitive means which we humans currently possess at this stage in our evolution may be existentially seriously deficient. At present, we simply may not be able to perceive, let alone understand, the range of phenomena that exists within the category we are positing as constituting “The Natural.”
If this is even partly true, then we may be looking at the passage of many generations of humans awaiting further developments in the way our brain functions and in the way we code the information that becomes available to us, before we even have a small chance of perceiving additional parts of what is being called here Natural Reality, or just Reality.
One way of illustrating this concern would be to think of the entire range of our assumed information about that Reality as being represented by all of the frequencies currently assigned to the AM radio band in the United States. Ordinary radios are built to receive all AM frequencies. However, let us here rather assume that all radios were built to receive only one AM frequency. Let us also assume that no citizen of the United States is aware of the fact that there is more than one AM frequency. In fact, no one in the entire history of the United States has ever conceived of a radio as having the capability to receive more than one frequency.
In this crude illustration, all of the AM frequencies represent what we think we know about Reality, and all U.S. citizens are all human beings. In this case, there is obviously a great gulf that separates what they think they know about the number of AM frequencies and what actually exists.
But the illustration can be used to represent an even more acute problem. There also exist all of the FM frequencies, all the TV frequencies, the military frequencies, the emergency frequencies, the cell phone frequencies, and on and on. In our illustration, we humans are totally oblivious to 99 percent of the assigned electromagnetic frequencies representational of this “Reality.”
But perhaps this illustration is deficient. Let us consider a second one.
Two members of the Loma Linda University Church Sabbath Seminar class recently offered another analogy of the problem that we are here addressing. It needs to be emphasized that this illustration was not conceived by the writer, but offered by two much more creative individuals.
Let us assume that “Reality” is represented by 100 trillion jigsaw pieces (we can also use Legos). Actually, we should probably say that the number of such pieces would probably be, at least, several hundred orders of magnitude more numerous, but, for this illustration, let’s go with 100 trillion. Our goal is to assemble the picture that exists when all of the 100 trillion pieces are assembled together correctly. That picture will then tell us something about the true nature of Reality in this part of our universe.
Let us now ask: “To how many pieces of this Reality puzzle do we humans currently have access?” Let us be generous. Let us say we have 12 pieces with which to work. Some may object, “That’s not realistic.” Okay, let’s be really generous. Let’s say that when we combine all of the information available to all branches of humanity in the 21st Century, accumulated over the entire period of time humans have been on this planet, we have a grand total of 37 pieces out of the 100 trillion.
How do we go about trying to assemble our 37 pieces to construct a picture of “Reality”? Well, we have a number of problems. First, we don’t know what the picture that would result from assembling all of the 100 trillion pieces correctly actually looks like. Second, we don’t have a clue as to where any of our puzzle pieces are supposed to go in that unknown picture.
If these illustrations even faintly represent the problems we humans currently have with perceiving—let alone, understanding—”Reality,” they can represent a helpful corrective that allows us to realize that whatever “big picture” we think we currently have that represents anything about Reality, we are like little children at the seashore picking up grains of sand and thinking that we currently have all the information we need to construct in our heads the nature of the “Reality” of the entire world. Of course, such children do not even have the linguistic tools to conceptualize what they are trying to do. We humans are, of course, the “children.”
In light of this point of view, this conjecture would include a stipulation that we obviously would not limit God and the current species of humans existing on planet Earth as the only entities that inhabit all of Reality–however conceived. We are aware of the disputed views of the Schrodinger/Hawking type that our universe is just one of many in the multiverse. Whether Reality involves just one or many universes, we would conjecture that the number of sentient or self-conscious organisms of whatever physical configuration that this posited Reality contains would also exist as part of a natural Reality.
Problematic Existence of Supernatural
In turning to the traditional Western Christian understanding of what is encompassed within the category of Supernatural, it would seem that we immediately encounter a very different conceptual element from that which we defined as Natural. Of course, the author might, and probably will, be corrected by someone much more informed about these matters, but he is not aware of any generally persuasive argument that has, to date, been offered that concludes that humans possess any publicly accessible objective evidence that confirms the existence of the category, in English, labeled as “The Supernatural.”
It is argued here that all such evidence presented to support its separate existence—however conceived—is, at best, radically subjective, i.e., is not publicly accessible for independent investigation. It needs to be quickly added that this observation is not–repeat not– insisting that reported subjective experiences classified by some as being of supernatural origin, did, in fact, not occur. The literature of religious mysticism which has been collected over millennia from various types of societies represents a truly massive corpus of such reports. What is at issue is the precise nature of these reported experiences. A more nuanced way of putting this would be to say that the issue is first to determine what exactly is the range of the cross-cultural human experiences attributed to the supernatural, however conceived, and then to determine their precise natures (plural).
All that is being said here is that the writer would appreciate being directed to any publicly accessible body of data that confirms to the satisfaction of some group of reasonably objective observers that the existence of the supernatural has been clearly demonstrated. Some may wish the word “disinterested” to replace “reasonably objective” in that sentence. The reason that “reasonably objective” is used is because it is suggested here that a good case can be made that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to locate a truly disinterested individual when this topic is considered.
On the other hand, perhaps a group of well-informed adherents of an appropriate branch of Buddhism might be assembled who might be considered disinterested with regard to the Christian-oriented reports of the existence of the supernatural. I admit, however, that I can think of reasonable objections to believing that even these individuals would be considered disinterested parties.
The previous paragraph has been written, cognizant of a distinction contributed by the American theologian Philip Clayton, who outlined what he views as four levels of personal adjudication of theological or metaphysical assertions. He disputes the binary view that insists there are only two ways of evaluating theological or metaphysical propositions: by agreeing or disagreeing. Clayton has suggested there rather are four levels of justifying the giving or withholding of assent to some theological or philosophical proposition or set of propositions.
It is suggested that there is only one kind of reality, not two. There is only a natural reality—which we can simply call Reality. We suggest that the idea of the supernatural was a conceptual invention brought forward at the beginning of the Modern period in the West to create a space for the development of what eventually became the 16th-Century Western Scientific Revolution.
This development of this concept had the effect of allowing the study of the physical world to be undertaken with a minimum of interference from those still functioning within a Medieval world view. The Western Medieval Age of Faith and Miracles gave way to the Western Age of Science, and it is here argued that the betterment of mankind was thereby enhanced by several orders of magnitude. Today, the distinction between natural and supernatural need no longer be made in the name of supporting any brand of religious orthodoxy. There is only one Reality and, for theists, not only humans but also God inhabits that Reality.
All types of observations, comments, objections, affirmations and disagreements of a constructive character are solicited.
Comment: Before concluding this discussion, the author wishes to note that he is certainly aware of several cogent objections to the thesis being advanced here. One such objection would be that the author is simply engaging in a semantic game. What he is doing is merely renaming the concept of the Supernatural and assigning it as being a part of the Natural— a part which we currently cannot access. That, it could be charged, is actually not changing anything. In response to that criticism, may I respond by saying that I am currently of the view that this is not a renaming exercise. I submit that removing the category of the supernatural and declaring that all that exists, i.e., Reality, is totally naturalistic in character fundamentally alters a core concept that has existed in most contemporary Western religious traditions since the beginning of the Modern era. However, such a change does not logically require that a commitment to theism be abandoned. That said, I am certainly open to being corrected.
Acknowledgements: The author wishes to express his appreciation to a number of individuals whose names will not be cited here because it was not thought prudent to cite them by name in a text that was to be posted on the Internet. Nevertheless, I feel that it is necessary to thank the members of the Loma Linda University Sabbath Seminar for considering the arguments presented in this paper in an earlier version and offering many constructive comments. A University of California-Riverside philosopher and two Loma University theologians also provided extremely helpful perspectives on several points. Obviously, these individuals may or may not agree in whole or in part with any assertion contained in this paper. Also, any error of logic and fact about any topic considered in this paper is solely the fault of the writer.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.
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