The Problems with “Supernatural”

In my last article, I explained how the term “natural” is problematic to the point of being nearly meaningless. Today, the object of my critique is the concept of the “supernatural.” Religious folk often believe that beyond the ordinary, natural world, there is another realm: the supernatural world. Atheists, including some famous atheist scholars of today, sometimes define their beliefs as a negation of these same terms, as a denial of the existence of the supernatural. The truth is, the idea of the “supernatural” as opposed to the “natural” came about when humans had almost no understanding of the world around us. Even if God exists, describing God as “supernatural” makes little sense, especially in light of today’s scientific advances. On the other hand, advances in science do not in any way prove that many things once thought of as supernatural do not exist. Rather, our ever-expanding knowledge about ourselves and the universe has rendered the term supernatural irrelevant. Today, regardless of our views on God, we should think of the “natural” and “supernatural” planes of reality as one and the same.

Let’s start by examining where the idea of the supernatural came from and how it fits, or doesn’t, into modern science. One of the most important reasons for the development of the concept of God was that there were countless features of reality that could not be explained. Why does lightning strike, and why does it strike when it does? Why does the temperature plummet for a while only to rise again, and what does that big fiery-looking hot ball up in the sky have to do with all of it? Without a clue what the origin of these phenomena could be, early humans explained them by appealing to the supernatural. Being thousands of steps and, as it turned out, several millennia away from having any hope of explaining so much of the world, they could not fathom that the “natural” world around them was sufficiently complex to cause these more extreme features of life or that the explanations for the bewildering and awe-inspiring phenomena they experienced on this plane could be found within it. They thought that surely there was some other entity that was controlling their experiences, some entity that occupied an entirely different space that they couldn’t fully comprehend. That space became known as the supernatural.

Today, many of those questions that left our forebears grasping at straws (or the prehistoric equivalent) and positing a host of absurd explanations have been answered. We know that lightning comes from a build up of electrical charge in the clouds. We know that the sun is a burning ball of gas around which our planet orbits. In fact, scientific progress has been so vast that many people have come to believe that all of our questions about the world can be answered “scientifically” and/or that they have their basis in the purely physical realm. For them, the idea of a supernatural world is preposterous. Because so many things that were once thought of as supernatural have been shown to have complete and fully understood grounding in the physical, “natural” world, it makes sense to assume that, if we humans could ever attain perfect knowledge of the physical universe, we would know that all of it is merely, well, natural.

In a sense, they are right— we should forget about the idea of the supernatural. But problems abound with their line of reasoning. For starters, it is true that the quantity of questions left for Homo sapiens, at least when it comes to the readily observable features of our world, has plummeted. However, “readily observable” is relative. One definition of supernatural is anything that cannot be readily explained and observed, and by that definition, most people nowadays, including atheists, believe in a whole host of “supernatural” things to explain reality. Is the mind bending logic of quantum physics or the great mystery of dark matter any more incredible than the idea of a creator God? Do materialist scientists who believe in such things stretch their credibility much more than those who worship God?

Additionally, we appear to be essentially no closer to answering some of the most pressing questions about the nature of reality than we were thousands of years ago. When pressed on what they mean by a lack of belief in the supernatural, many who hail science as our only hope for knowledge will explain that they hold materialist views: that the only thing that exists in the universe is the physical world of matter (and energy.) But materialism has some cringe-worthy weaknesses. For example, what’s the deal with consciousness? Aside from perhaps “Why does anything exist?”, there is no more important or more fascinating question about reality, and despite all of our incredible new insights into the world and all of our real life sci-fi technology, we delude ourselves if we think we are anything but clueless about what consciousness is or where it comes from. Literally, all we know is that our ability to experience anything probably has something to do with the brain. That’s all we truly know and nothing more. Philosophers and scientists have taken stabs at writing off the great puzzle of consciousness as being less mysterious than it seems, but they are incorrect to do so. My favorite trending explanation for consciousness coming out of the neuroscience community is panpsychism, the idea that all matter has some element of consciousness and that this feature becomes apparent only when matter is arranged in certain consciousness-enhancing or synergistic ways, of which the human brain is an example. It’s a delightful idea that has a certain spiritual flair to it and great explanatory power, and panpsychism sounds a faint ring of truth to many scientists (for whatever that’s worth given how wrong our intuitions often are.) But it only rings true because of the total lack of any other explanations for consciousness. It only sounds plausible – and it truly does only sound plausible rather than anything else because there isn’t a shred of real observable scientific evidence to support it – because we don’t have a fucking clue how a bunch of fatty cells floating in water encased in our skulls could possibly come together to create the infinitely rich subjective experience called being human. Even if panpsychism is true, the theory does nothing in its current form to explain how something physical could result in a subjective, “lived” experience for a conscious entity, and it’s hard to imagine how it will do so.

As many light years as we have leaped in our understanding, our wonderfully discoveries, critically, have led to just as many questions as answers. Returning to the question of “Why does anything exist?”, science-worshippers sometimes suggest that the Big Bang is the only explanation we need. Bullshit! With the theory of relativity suggesting that time and space can bend and with string theory asserting that there could be as many as eleven dimensions in our reality, the universe is as mysterious as ever. And that’s to say nothing of other consciousness-related concerns, such as the existence of morality. The necessity for a placeholder to stand in for all that we don’t know is as great as it used to be, though that placeholder takes a slightly different shape. Its shape now locks in with a physical world that is infinitely stranger and more complex that our ancestors ever could have imagined. Our placeholder for the unknown today takes over at the edge of a bewildering modern understanding of our universe, a framework in which even an object as simple as a rock, which many ancients thought relatively self-explanatory, is a source of wonder and a compass toward knowledge Homo sapiens will probably never reach. If people don’t want to call that placeholder “God” anymore, I have no issue with that, but it’s as good a word as any that I can think of.

And yet as obvious as it is that we have not outlearned our need for a placeholder to speak of life’s mysteries, one word that we should not use for that placeholder is the “supernatural.” That’s something the anti-supernatural atheists have correct: it is clear that many of the features of reality once thought to be caused by things separate from our typical plane of existence actually have their explanations embedded within it. Even if God exists, there is no reason to assume that God is not also embedded into the fabric of our world, just like the explanation for why lightning strikes. In fact, this idea is nothing new. Pantheism, the idea that all existing things actually are God, dates back to early religious thought. Even Christian theologians have played with the concept of an immanent God – a God that is not necessarily identical to all things but is found within all things. The whole idea of separating the “natural world” from the world of God came from a time when the world was so poorly understood that it was nearly impossible to fathom that the observable world could possibly be everything that there is. How could all of the mysteries of life possibly be explained within the world we can see? How could they be explained without appealing to the idea of another realm of existence that we can’t understand? But this dichotomy was only one conception that happened to become the dominant one and today should be rejected. As we have come to better understand the physical world, we have realized that it is infinitely more complex than we could have possibly realized in the past. As previously referenced, something relatively simple like the existence of a rock, which thousands of years ago might not have called for a supernatural explanation, is wildly more complicated than it seems. With its billions upon billions of atoms, each surrounded by electrons swirling at unfathomable speed, not to mention the tremendous, slow-moving geological forces required to create it, even the prosaic rock would have left the ancients crying out to God for answers had they known a bit more about it. Today’s rich knowledge of the physical world and the confounding complexity it has revealed, a level of understanding once unthinkable, has undermined the concept that the natural world requires a supernatural one to explain it, and yet here is the great and critical irony: this very knowledge and the braintwisting complexity we have uncovered has given us even more reason seek humility. The humility we need is not with regards to understanding some other, removed, supernatural world but with regards to understand our own! The ancients were not wrong to be in awe of lightning, and we are not wrong to be in awe of the Big Bang. In fact, our situation demands awe and, with it, supine humility.

Dividing things into two classes of existence, ones that exist naturally and ones that exist supernaturally, never made much logical sense to begin with, and with our modern advancements, that dualistic conception is even more clearly irrelevant. However, the logical conclusion to be drawn from all of our discoveries is not that religious thinkers have been wrong to believe in the supernatural world and therefore that nothing supernatural exists but rather that they have been wrong to separate reality into these two categories in the first place — that the concept of the supernatural is a mistake, to say nothing of the continuing possible existence of the things once considered within it. It’s not that we should abandon pursuit of what has traditionally been thought to be a part of the supernatural but rather that the natural world and the supernatural world should conceptually merge! Seemingly fantastical explanations for what we see around us have in many cases been shown to exist, explanations that are in some ways more outlandish than those of our religious ancestors. The key point, the crucial change in perspective that our scientific growth has revealed, is simply that these bizarre explanations for reality exist within the “natural” world, not separate from it. For example, the supernatural theory suggests that there is a parallel reality that sometimes affect and perhaps controls us. Many scientific minds laugh at “supernatural” ideas like that one, and yet other hidden worlds and dimensions, in the form of dark matter and string theory, are exactly what science has suggested actually exist! Is the suggestion of, for example, a hypothetical afterlife spirit world of spirits any more bizarre or mysterious than the Big Bang or the multidimensional suggestions of string theory or dark matter or even the vast molecular composition of a rock and all of the questions they beg? And it bears repeating that many of the most powerful quandaries about reality are not even close to being solved. Their answers perhaps do still lie in wait for us and our feeble minds (although I’m not counting on it.) But if some day the answers to some of our deepest and most difficult questions do come to us and even if they arrive via science rather than revelation, that will not necessarily prove the essence of certain “spiritual” views wrong, only the category error of labeling the unknown “supernatural.” Possibly, science will someday suggest that panpsychism is true and that there is a sentience pervasive in all things that perhaps even connects the entire universe together through a giant network of consciousness. If that is indeed one day shown by science, some atheists will argue that this explanation further proves that nothing supernatural exists (because we will then for the first time have a “natural” explanation for consciousness) and that, therefore, God doesn’t exist. But they would be wrong! They would not be wrong regarding the supernatural—because the supernatural makes no sense as a category of existence and therefore doesn’t exist—but they would be wrong to say that science has in that case done away with the idea of God. On the contrary, science itself would have shown us God! That universal consciousness I am describing, shown to us by science, would itself be the thing that many of us have tried to explain as “God” for so long. Rather than disprove God’s existence, such a scientific breakthrough would in fact show that God has not been a part of some separate “supernatural” realm but has simply been a part of everything and a part of us all along.

Either a thing exists or it does not. Either a thing is a part of reality or it is not. Just as labeling various human behaviors and productions such as good or bad behavior or organic food “natural” and others such as GMOs or violence or non-violence “unnatural” is a waste of time and often intellectually dangerous, so is dividing existence into the natural and the supernatural. What was once a somewhat logical framework for understanding reality has broken down over millennia of discoveries and insights. With the physical world around us as magically layered and interwoven and infinitely detailed as it has been shown to be, and with our subjective experience of consciousness richer and more mysterious than ever, and with our deepest philosophical and existential and moral questions still screaming out to us even in the light of evolution and our heroic progress in cosmology, we will only benefit from doing away with this archaic and distracting dichotomy. If atheists and theists alike can realize that all of the things we study and all of the things we wonder and think about are not part of two separate worlds but rather under the same umbrella, part of the same tree and sharing the same roots, we will have a better chance of weaving a web of understanding that truly encompasses the vastness of the one and only realm that exists: reality.

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