Science can deal with the supernatural

Debate over scientism often consists of critics arguing that certain areas of knowledge are beyond the domain of science. The realm of morals is a common example, as are ‘why’ questions and the supernatural. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci can be relied upon to play the role of critic, for example writing:

[Richard] Dawkins and [Jerry] Coyne … insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes [Sam] Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

This claim, that science cannot deal with the supernatural, is widely accepted, even among scientists. For example, the website “Understanding Science” says in its introductory “What is science?” account:

Science cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities. It deals only with natural phenomena and explanations.

The claim is particularly widespread in America, partly as a political tactic to avoid science appearing to contradict religion. By intentionally limiting science, the hope is to avoid a clash that might imperil support for science amongst a highly religiose populace. Any attempt by science to talk about the supernatural or gods is deemed ‘bad science’, and any attempt by religion to contradict factual scientific findings is labeled ‘bad religion’. Thus the American National Academy of Sciences declares:

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.

It also produces a religion-friendly booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism that says:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.

In contrast, biologist Jerry Coyne has argued several times that science can test the supernatural; physicist Sean Carroll tends to agree, as does philosopher Russell Blackford, while skeptic Michael Shermer disagrees, saying that “Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural”.

So how can intellectuals of similar world view (everyone named above is an atheist) reach opposite conclusions on this point? The answer is that ‘supernatural’ is an ill-defined, colloquial word, and thus the disagreements amount to different interpretations of what the claim “science can/cannot deal with the supernatural” amounts to.

So what does ‘supernatural’ mean? Dictionaries are not much help, defining ‘supernatural’ as ‘not natural’, but giving little guidance on how to distinguish natural from supernatural. One possible answer is that natural things are those that do exist whereas supernatural things do not. However, those who believe in and postulate supernatural entities do regard them as existing, and deducing whether or not something exists should be the result of examining evidence, not an a priori declaration.

A similar, slightly facetious, definition of ‘supernatural’ would be ‘things that science cannot deal with’, but, again, this doesn’t help in establishing whether a particular postulated entity can or can’t be addressed by science.

To understand ‘supernatural’ we should realise that it is an ill-defined folk category of likely imagined beings that are usually envisaged as variations on natural beings. As emphasized by scholars of folk religion, such as Pascal Boyer in his Religion Explained, supernatural beings are not totally alien beings unrecognisable to us, they are like us, but with a limited number of differences. Thus ghosts can walk through walls and cannot die, but otherwise are recognisable as humans, with human-like attributes and behaviour.


Similarly, comic-strip heros, Superman, Spiderman and their ilk, are humans with a limited number of added super-attributes, and also some human weaknesses. As with all science fiction, it is their overlap with real humans that makes the stories interesting to us. Gods have added powers, just like comic-strip heros, but are human in their attitudes and motivations. Supreme gods might theoretically by omnipotent and omniscient, but they aren’t actually like that in the stories about them, they are beings with feelings and desires, beings you can talk to and make deals with; they are extrapolations of humans, disembodied tribal leaders with added powers.

Thus, supernatural entities may obey laws somewhat different from the natural laws, but they do obey laws, they exhibit regularities that are comprehensible, and have natures, ones that we humans can understand. That is the only reason they are interesting to us, the reason they are part of our mythology.

So what is it about the supernatural that might mean that science cannot deal with it? Well, non-existence, perhaps, but that conclusion needs to be the result of investigation, and we can only arrive there if science can investigate the supernatural. And I doubt that by “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral” the National Academy of Science meant that, of course, gods don’t actually exist.

As envisaged, supernatural beings can interact with the natural world (there would be little point in envisaging them if they couldn’t): ghosts can be seen, can appear in photographs and can cause the temperature to drop; sprites can cause good luck or bad luck; imps can mischievously cause things to go missing; demons can possess people; vampires kill people; gods can heal the sick, or cause your lottery numbers to come up, or determine the outcome of football games.

These interactions with the natural world mean that supernatural beings are entirely accessible to science. After all, that’s what science does, it investigates things that can have discernible effects on anything that science can measure. Very little about the natural world is observed directly, and most of the time science is observing things indirectly, through their effects on something else.

For example, science cannot observe a neutrino directly, but we deduce its nature from, say, its effect on an electron, with that electron then affecting other electrons in a liquid, which causes bubbles to form along the electron’s track in a bubble-chamber, and those bubbles can be detected by their interaction with photons, with those photons then interacting with photographic emulsion; and then, after the photograph is developed, other photons bounce off the photograph and into our eyes. Most physical material is only known by a highly indirect chain of effects on other particles that affect other particles that … eventually have some effect on our sense data.

Thus science pursues evidence trails, trails of evidence that follow back along such chains of causation, spreading out into all aspects of the observable world. Science doesn’t know or care whether some cause at the end of a chain is ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’, all it cares about is that something is having a discernible effect on something else, and from that handle alone science can investigate its nature.

Thus science doesn’t rule anything out as an a priori assumption, and issues of whether an entity exists, or what attributes and powers it has (whether ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’), are to be determined by scientific enquiry, by following trails of evidence wherever they lead.

The issue of whether intelligent agents (“gods”) are interfering in the world is no different in principle from whether chimpanzees or gorillas (or humans) are affecting the world. Yes, gods may be capricious and hard to understand, but then so are chimpanzees and humans!

The claim that ‘supernatural’ entities cannot be pursued by science because they obey no laws and no regularities is false because no supernatural beings are ever envisaged that way. Even if some cause were entirely random and exhibited no regularities, that could still be accommodated within science, as in, for example, the randomness currently thought to be inherent in radioactive decay and other processes governed by quantum mechanics.

The only ‘non-natural’ beings that science could not investigate are those which are postulated as being unable to have any effect at all, even in principle, on anything in the natural world. But that is not how supernatural beings are envisaged, and the possibility of such beings, entirely causally disconnected from our universe, is largely uninteresting.

Religious believers don’t conceive of gods as unable to communicate, or unable to help you, or to heal the sick, or to do anything at all. Indeed such helpless beings are the very opposite of the super-capable and even omnipotent beings of religious belief.

Thus believers are faced with a dilemma: either admit that your god is utterly impotent, totally uninteresting, and incapable of having any effect whatsoever on us or on our world, or admit that your god is a hypothesis about the real world that is just as amenable to scientific investigation as any other.

Even if the religious claim is that God doesn’t interfere in nature, but limits himself only to revealing knowledge in the mind of the believer (the “other way of knowing” or sensus divinitatis beloved of theologians), that is still an observable effect on the natural world — it must be, since our knowledge is manifest as physical patterns in our material brains, and the material state of our brains is in-principle observable. Further, any such revealed knowledge could have clearly observable consequences for that person’s real-world behaviour.

Thus, if you want to place your god beyond the domain of science, you have to accept that you can have no knowledge whatsoever of this god.

From the point of view of the scientist, we should assert that ‘supernatural’ claims are not a priori beyond the scope of science. Anything envisaged as having a possible effect on anything at all in the natural world — and supernatural claims always are envisaged that way — is within the proper domain of science.

Whether such entities exist is then to be determined by science (aka evidence), with the burden of proof being, of course, on the person claiming that the supernatural entity exists. Trying to claim that science is not the right tool to answer that question is really just an admission that you have no good evidence.


7 thoughts on “Science can deal with the supernatural

  1. Neil Rickert

    Here’s the way I like to look at it.

    A long time ago, people saw the world as magical, as painted with supernatural paint. Since then, science has come along, and shown that it is really painted with natural paint.

    The religious are like people who have painted themselves into a corner. The amount of supernatural that remains is tiny, and ever decreasing, as the natural paint coverage spreads.

    They should have made their religion more naturalist, perhaps pantheistic, with mother nature as God. Then they could still claim to have something. But since they insist on the supernatural, they are left in the tiniest of corners, desperately seeking gaps in which to find their god of the gaps.

    “Supernatural” just turns out to be a fancy sounding name for the few remaining gaps.

  2. Anton Szautner

    Excellent. Once again. This is amongst the best essays on this matter I’ve seen. It has been my position for a very long time. Sadly, until only recently, it has foundered as a minority view, receiving rebuke from religious and science communities alike. It has been most discouraging to have this perspective summarily and repeatedly dismissed, not by religious believers, which is to be expected, but by scientists who reflexively trot out the tired ‘argument’ (thoughtlessly – exactly like a dogma, without further examination) that scientific investigation is inapplicable to the question of whether a ‘supernatural’ realm populated with ‘supernatural’ entities exists.

    As you so ably point out, the notion that the ‘supernatural’ is not amenable to scientific investigation must necessarily require that the ‘supernatural’ realm and its denizens have absolutely no observable effects on the natural world. Obviously, this drops a serious problem into the laps of believers who insist on having it both ways: a ‘supernatural’ (actually, ‘un-natural’, or perhaps even more concisely, ‘anti-natural’) entity which is utterly divorced from the natural world and which does not interact with it or its contents or inhabitants in any way is precisely as useless as if it did not exist (although one may quibble about the mere conceptual fantasy of non-existent entities having an effect on the believer, who manifestly exists in the natural world and may by such belief in turn inflict a consequent behavior upon it, but that is a problem for psychology – also a science, however ‘soft’ it may be).

    ‘Supernatural’ entities can either exist or not exist, and they may or may not interact with the natural world. This suggests four possibilities:

    1. They exist and they interact with the natural world.
    2. They exist but do not interact with the natural world.
    3. They don’t exist yet interact with the natural world.
    4. They don’t exist and there is no interaction with the natural world.

    #1 is absolutely positively amenable to scientific investigation. However, anything that exists and interacts with the natural world appears to entirely satisfy the very definition of natural, an entity which belongs to the natural world, and completely negates the case for the existence of ‘supernaturality’ in the first place as nothing more than a means of manufacturing an artificial difference (somehow ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ ordinary nature). Yet, while most believers may cleave to this view, the burden of demonstrating the reality of the ‘difference’, specifically as something NOT of the natural world, is entirely on them who claim it. The position actually requires no ‘supernaturality’ at all. The ‘concept’, however variable or ill-defined, is totally unnecessary; as an explanation, it fails miserably: if there are, in fact, real observable phenomena taking place attributable to entities tinkering with the ‘ordinary’ laws of nature, of cause and effect, probability, or any other aspect of the natural world, why should these not be a result of agencies that exist wholly within the natural world? Agencies which themselves obey the laws of nature but which have a greater understanding of them and thus a greater command of manipulating them, as our technology has confers abilities that our ancestors would have considered ‘god-like’.

    #2 This claim is often adopted, as you mention, as a way of distinguishing such entities from those of the natural world. But, of course, what are Gods and other ‘supernatural’ entities any good for if they DON’T interact with the natural world? And if they do not interact with the natural world, they may as well NOT exist. This too is a burden upon believers. Science is under no obligation to investigate any non-existent phenomena which such alleged entities neglect to introduce to the natural world. Yet a fully scientific conclusion CAN be made: no observable effects of any kind whatsoever is very strong grounds for discounting the existence of ‘supernatural’ entities. The corollary argument that at least some if not ALL natural phenomena are a product of ‘supernatural’ influence or craft begs for irrefutable demonstration of mechanism, let alone motive. After thousands of years of theological speculation, and after further centuries presumably greased by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, nothing has been unequivocally confirmed, nothing has been discovered, nothing new has been revealed. Science, meanwhile, is the only approach that has managed to increase our knowledge of the real natural world, by leaps and bounds punctuating steady progress. Science CAN say – from long and tedious observational experience – that the one and only realm that actually exists is the natural world: even our beloved but incomplete – if not utterly faulty – conceptual models we embrace so tenaciously in our minds belong to and are a product of that natural realm. There isn’t any other.

    # 3 is absurd, while #4 is the only one consistent with what science has thus far observed in the natural world. With this last, science CAN say, (BECAUSE science says everything provisionally): “They don’t exist BECAUSE there is no interaction with the natural world that has ever been observed that can only be attributable to any ‘supernatural’ agency.”

    That is a wholesome and accurate scientific conclusion that may be held without trepidation until any information emerges to contradict it. Unlike believers who are irrevocably welded to their creeds, scientists are always free and even eager to change their minds in the light of new compelling information.

    The universe is 13.7 billion years old. Humans capable of sophisticated flights of fancy have been around for only one or two million years. Why should nature require spooks to exist for 9999/10,000 of the lifetime of the cosmos before humans emerged to benefit from or get harassed by them? Why should a creator deity bother to fashion a universe of space and time so vast expressly for such an improbable and – lets face it, in that vast scheme of things, insignificant – little blink of a trifle as we? Why do so many reject information gleaned directly from nature (which is, after all, according to them, the creator-deity’s handiwork and therefore information directly from the horse’s mouth) in favor of accepting irrational beliefs from stagnant traditions? Why should that console their dread of a vast impersonal universe and especially their own personal mortality? What are the social and psychological factors that preserve traditions of ignorance and irrationality? These questions and endless more are all indeed eminently addressable by science.

  3. Pingback: Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of New Atheism and scientism | coelsblog

  4. CBuick

    So if we observe “physical patterns in [the] material brain” of a believer while God is “revealing knowledge in the mind of the believer”, that would be evidence God exists?

    1. Coel Post author

      Yes, if you could actually show that it was “God revealling knowledge” in the mind of believer then it would indeed be evidence for God’s existence. But you would actually have to have evidence that it was God doing it, and not just your brain self-reflecting.

  5. rjbullock

    “But you would actually have to have evidence that it was God doing it, and not just your brain self-reflecting.”

    And how would you prove that? Ever? You could not. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. How can I ever “prove” to you what chocolate tastes like to me? I can’t.

    Spiritual experience is similarly entirely subjective. It happens in here, not out there. No proof is possible but no proof is necessary as far as I can see.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s