Sunday, October 4, 2015

Natural vs. Supernatural

The question seems to arise over and over again.  What is the difference between natural phenomena and supernatural phenomena?  At first blush, it doesn't seem that there should be any controversy about this.  But theists are fond of blurring the line.  Their reasoning seems to go something like this: if there is no clear distinction between natural and supernatural, then there is no clear basis for declaring that belief in the supernatural is unjustified, or that it is somehow less sound than naturalism.  In this way, they seek to make their own belief in supernatural things seem more reasonable.  Here's an example of this line of thinking:
What I meant was this. Suppose the Apostles' Creed is true, but the nature-supernature distinction turns out to be an artificial one, so that there is no sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Suppose all we mean by physical is that it interacts with the physical world. So it turns out what we used to call God, angels, and souls turn out to be physical things, by some definition of physical. We can call them the theon, angelons, and psychons. My reaction to that, is, "So what. No problem." Only when you put limits on what can be natural am I going to be concerned about defending the belief that there is something super-that. - Reppert
Victor is admitting here that he'd rather not have to defend belief in supernatural things, but he thinks it's advantageous to take the battle to the ground of the naturalists and make them seem unreasonable for refusing to admit the existence of things that are part of the natural world.  But his reasoning is flawed, as I shall discuss.

It is worth asking what distinguishes natural from supernatural in the minds of naturalists.  Perhaps the most obvious dividing line is physical existence (which implies existence within the realm of space-time).  For many, naturalism equates to physicalism or materialism.  But this raises objections from theists who argue that materialism simply excludes any consideration of the possibility of any other type of entity in the natural world.  So, for example, you might maintain that theons are the stuff of God, and psychons are the stuff of mind, but these things are non-material, and so their existence is rejected out-of-hand by materialists.  Is that unfair?  Theons and psychons might be a part of nature without being physical.

Another possible criterion might be detectability.  We can detect the presence of physical things, but not immaterial things.  This is what makes physical things available for scientific examination, while the immaterial remains out of reach, according to theists.  But we should look at that claim more closely.  What does it mean to detect something?  We don't sense things directly.  If we see a tree, we are only sensing a stream of photons that has been influenced by the presence of the tree.  We detect gravity by observing the force exerted on massive objects.  But what about immaterial things?  If they had no influence on the physical world, why would a theist think they exist?  Theists believe that God designed the things in the world, and that he made a physical presence in the form of Jesus, and there are miraculous events.  These things have been cited by theists as evidence in support of their belief.  Without these supposed physical indicators, it is doubtful that theists would have any reason at all to believe that God exists.  So it appears that they are walking on both sides of the fence on this issue.  They are adamant that science can't investigate the realm of the immaterial, but at the same time they claim physical influences on the world as evidence for their belief.  It would seem that God is indeed detectable, but only by theists - not by science.  That does seem unfair.

There is another criterion that in my opinion marks the real distinction between natural and supernatural.  We speak of natural law as the regularity of behavior exhibited by all natural things.  We observe that everything in our experience conforms with this regularity, with the possible exception of miracles, which are understood as violations of natural law.  This seems to be a good way to distinguish natural from supernatural.  Even if we don't yet recognize all kinds of regularity to which natural things adhere, we know that the things within our ability to observe always conform to the rule of regularity.  Gravity causes massive objects to attract each other.  There are no exceptions, even if we see things that seem to be exceptions to this rule.  So a balloon may rise due to buoyancy, but that is not an exception to the law.  The thing about miracles is that they are exceptions to the law.  They are one-time events.  So a heavy object rising in the air with no physical force acting on it to overpower gravity would qualify as a supernatural event.

But what of Reppert's theons and psychons?  How do they fit into this scheme?  God is not required to conform to natural law.  God can perform miracles, according to theists.  God can even define natural law to be whatever he chooses.  If theons are the stuff of God, then they are not subject to natural law any more than God is.  Therefore, theons are supernatural things.  Psychons, being the stuff of the immaterial mind, are not subject to natural law, either, mainly because the immaterial mind is not subject to causality, according to theists.  The mind has libertarian free will, which means that it can decide a course of action independent of any natural causal factors.  So these psychons must be supernatural things, too.

And this is where Victor's reasoning goes off the rails.  He wants to postulate these things that are named to sound like natural particles, like photons or electrons, in order to present them as being part of nature.  But at the same time, he exempts these things from the laws of natural behavior.  By theists' conceptions of how they behave, they don't exhibit the same regularity of behavior that natural things do.  They are not subject to natural law.  No matter how hard Victor may try to spin it, his theons and psychons are not natural things unless he wants to make them subject to the same natural laws that govern everything else in the world.  They are supernatural.

Before I close, I should mention one last criterion for distinguishing the natural from the supernatural.  Natural things actually exist.  We know this because we observe them, reliably and objectively.  The same can't be said of supernatural things.  Of course, theists will argue this point.  But we simply don't have reliable, objective evidence of the existence of any supernatural thing or event.  Period.  If we did, then scientists and skeptics would agree.  The evidence that theists point to is always subjective or dubious in nature.  The stories in the bible are just that - stories.  Supposed miraculous events like Fatima are just natural events that some people thought were miraculous (other witnesses disagree).  Believers' feelings about the presence of God are emotional feelings, and purely subjective.

The bottom line is that unless you can show me some reliable, objective evidence that something supernatural exists, I really don't need to worry about distinguishing between the natural and the supernatural, because there is no good reason to believe that anything supernatural exists.

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