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In the discussion on defining and distinguishing between naturalism and supernaturalism, is it coherent to entertain the notion of a supernatural realm governed by rules or laws, and if so, would it make sense to explore the potential for a testable predictive theory of the supernatural?

In short, is the notion of "supernatural laws" a sensible concept, or an oxymoron?


Related discussions:
Are there versions of theism or supernaturalism that offer testable predictions?
Is it possible to define "the supernatural"?
Is naturalism falsifiable?


Working definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism

Naturalism:

The term “naturalism” has no very precise meaning in contemporary philosophy. Its current usage derives from debates in America in the first half of the last century. The self-proclaimed “naturalists” from that period included John Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook and Roy Wood Sellars. These philosophers aimed to ally philosophy more closely with science. They urged that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing “supernatural”, and that the scientific method should be used to investigate all areas of reality, including the “human spirit” (Krikorian 1944, Kim 2003).

So understood, “naturalism” is not a particularly informative term as applied to contemporary philosophers. The great majority of contemporary philosophers would happily accept naturalism as just characterized—that is, they would both reject “supernatural” entities, and allow that science is a possible route (if not necessarily the only one) to important truths about the “human spirit”.

[...]

As indicated by the above characterization of the mid-twentieth-century American movement, naturalism can be separated into an ontological and a methodological component. The ontological component is concerned with the contents of reality, asserting that reality has no place for “supernatural” or other “spooky” kinds of entity. By contrast, the methodological component is concerned with ways of investigating reality, and claims some kind of general authority for the scientific method. Correspondingly, this entry will have two main sections, the first devoted to ontological naturalism, the second to methodological naturalism.

Of course, naturalist commitments of both ontological and methodological kinds can be significant in areas other than philosophy. The modern history of psychology, biology, social science and even physics itself can usefully be seen as hinging on changing attitudes to naturalist ontological principles and naturalist methodological precepts. This entry, however, will be concerned solely with naturalist doctrines that are specific to philosophy. So the first part of this entry, on ontological naturalism, will be concerned specifically with views about the general contents of reality that are motivated by philosophical argument and analysis. And the second part, on methodological naturalism, will focus specifically on methodological debates that bear on philosophical practice, and in particular on the relationship between philosophy and science.

1. Ontological Naturalism

1.1 Making a Causal Difference

A central thought in ontological naturalism is that all spatiotemporal entities must be identical to or metaphysically constituted by physical entities. Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological, social and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities.

The driving motivation for this kind of ontological naturalism is the need to explain how special entities can have physical effects. Thus many contemporary thinkers adopt a physicalist view of the mental realm because they think that otherwise we will be unable to explain how mental events can causally influence our bodies and other physical items. Similar considerations motivate ontologically naturalist views of the biological realm, the social realm, and so on.

It may not be immediately obvious why this need to account for physical effects should impose any substantial naturalist constraints on some category. After all, there seems nothing a priori incoherent in the idea of radically unscientific “supernatural” events exerting a causal influence on physical processes, as is testified by the conceptual cogency of traditional stories about the worldly interventions of immaterial deities and other outlandish beings.

However, there may be a posteriori objections to such non-natural causal influences on the physical world, even if there are no a priori objections. We shall see below how modern scientific theory places strong restrictions on the kinds of entities that can have physical effects. Given that mental, biological and social phenomena do have such effects, it follows that they must satisfy the relevant restrictions.

Note how this kind of argument bites directly only on those categories that do have physical effects. It places no immediate constraints on categories that lack any such effects, which arguably include the mathematical and modal realms, and perhaps the moral realm. We shall return to the question of whether there are any further reasons for ontologically naturalist views about such putatively non-efficacious categories in sections 1.7 and 1.8 below.

Supernaturalism:

Supernaturalism, a belief in an otherworldly realm or reality that, in one way or another, is commonly associated with all forms of religion.

Evidence of neither the idea of nature nor the experience of a purely natural realm is found among primitive people, who inhabit a wonderworld charged with the sacred power (or mana), spirits, and deities. Primitive man associates whatever is experienced as uncanny or powerful with the presence of a sacred or numinous power; yet he constantly lives in a profane realm that is made comprehensible by a paradigmatic, mythical sacred realm. In the higher religions a gulf usually is created between the sacred and the profane, or the here and the beyond, and it is only with the appearance of this gulf that a distinction becomes drawn between the natural and the supernatural, a distinction that is not found, for example, in the classical religious traditions of Greece and China. Both the Olympian deities of ancient Greece and the Tao (“Way”) of ancient China were apprehended as lying at the centre of what today is commonly known as the natural; yet they were described in language that was imbued with concepts of the sacred.

Paradoxically, the most radical division between the natural and the supernatural is established by those forms of religion that posit a final or ultimate coincidence between the natural and the supernatural, or the sacred and the profane. This is true both in Indian mystical religion and in Near Eastern and Western eschatological religions, which are concerned with the last time that inaugurates a new sacred age. Buddhism, from its very beginning, established a total distinction between the realm of life and individual (saṃsāra), which it identified interiorly as the arena of pain and suffering, and the goal of the Buddhist way, Nirvāṇa, which is understood in wholly negative terms as a final and total release from saṃsāra. As Buddhism developed in India, however, and did so in part by way of making the distinction between Nirvāṇa and saṃsāra ever more comprehensive and pure, it gradually but decisively reached the point of identifying Nirvāṇa and saṃsāra, and this identification, according to some scholars, became the foundation of Mahāyāna (“Greater Vehicle”) Buddhism.

Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islām, which emphasize eschatology (the doctrine of last times), posit a radical dichotomy between the old aeon and the new aeon, or this world and the Kingdom of God. While normative Judaism cast off eschatology, although it was reborn in a mystical form in the Kabbala (Jewish mysticism), Christianity arose with an eschatological expectation of the immediate coming of the Kingdom of God. Primitive Christianity identified Jesus with the eschatological figure of the Son of man, a divine redeemer whose coming would inaugurate the Last Judgment and the end of the world. This early Christian faith went hand in hand with the belief that all things whatsoever will be transfigured into the Kingdom of God. Such a form of faith refuses to accept the world as simply world or nature but rather understands both nature and history as constantly undergoing a process of transformation that will issue in a wholly new creation or new world.

The secularization of modern Western civilization has created a gulf between the natural and the supernatural because of modern conceptions of the physical universe as being controlled by scientifically knowable and predictable laws and as existing apart from the influence or control of God. Hence, the world becomes a profane reality that is wholly isolated from both the sacred and the supernatural.


Additional thoughts

Note that a negative answer to this question would legitimize (and thus undermine some of the reasons some users brought up to criticize) this question.

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    When a law is a true generalization, with the direction-of-action from the general to the particular, then in general(!), there should be no obstacle to speaking of laws of supernature. However, when God is "simple" enough to not sustain the general/particular distinction, then are there true generalizations about God? If not, is God subject to laws so defined? Commented Apr 27 at 9:00
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    The answer obviously depends on what "nature" is taken to mean, after all, the supernatural is described as that which is over and above it. But many fantasy authors set up elaborate laws of magic, Jordan in The Wheel of Time for example, so, taking magic to be supernatural, there is nothing incoherent about supernatural laws. Mahner discusses more cogent definitions of the supernatural and opines that "whether or not supernatural entities are subject to any supernatural laws (whatever these may be) is irrelevant here."
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 27 at 11:18
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    I keep wondering why theists bother to have anything to do with non-theists? I don't go around getting sports fans to be interested in programming or electronics, which are arguably more important than almost anything else we know of. Let it go.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 27 at 11:39
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    @ScottRowe People don't tend to use sports to create government policy and laws that we all have to follow. OTOH there are many theists in government who allow their theology to influence their activity.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 27 at 22:22
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    Why can't there be supernatural laws, yet we can't test them with nature? This question seems to conclude that if there are supernatural laws, we could test them with nature. Why?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 27 at 23:45

3 Answers 3

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Consider the fantasy worlds that are represented by stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like. In these worlds, those creatures are considered supernatural, because most of them provide no natural explanation for how these creatures exist, and they typically violate many of the known laws of biology.

Yet, they often follow rules, and there's no known explanation for why. Vampires can't enter a home without being invited in -- something seems to block them, but speech acts can't affect the physics of doorways, and there's nothing physically different between doors into homes versus places of business. Werewolves are affected drastically by moonlight, but only dduring a full moon, even though the difference in light on the nights before or after are only minutely different.

These effects are consistent enough to be treated as laws in these worlds, but they're supernatural because there's no apparent explanation for them.

This is, of course, a relativist concept. For much of the history of human society, we observed nature and discerned its laws empirically, without understanding the underlying causes. Kepler determined his laws of planetary motion well before Newton developed his laws of gravity; so at that time, these could have been considered supernatural laws. And Newton didn't actually understand why gravity works like this, it wasn't until Einstein that we had a reasonable explanation for the underlying cause (space-time curvature).

So what is supernatural depends on exactly what we consider "natural" at the time. While there are still some precise details that are not understood, we believe we now have a fairly complete understanding of basic physics and biology, and can usually determine concepts that are impossible. These impossible activities are what we would consider supernatural if they actually happened. And if they are consistent in how they act, empirical laws can be defined for them.

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It's not necessarily an oxymoron, depending on how loose you want to be with the word "supernatural". But one perspective to keep in mind is, if there were a supernatural realm with supernatural laws, then in that realm, those laws would be effectively "natural", right?

Like if there were some alternate universe with sorcerers, and there were laws in that universe that allowed for sorcery, from our perspective it would look supernatural but in the context of that universe it would be reasonable to just call them "natural".

would it make sense to explore the potential for a testable predictive theory of the supernatural?

This has always made sense. The problem is, exceedingly few supernatural concepts produce testable supernatural models, and in the rare occasions that they do (like astrology), the testing comes out to the negative - which often seems to strengthen the resolve of believers

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    "Any sufficiently advanced naturology is indistinguishable from supernatural"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 27 at 11:37
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    And to add, if we have access to that "supernatural" realm such that it is testible, then under many conceptions of the "natural" that would bring that realm within the natural. But this asker has refused to define the terms.
    – Lowri
    Commented Apr 27 at 11:38
  • Personally, I believe that when embedded brain chips become popular enough and precise data about individual lives can be compiled and analyzed, we will be able to define some of the laws governing the supernatural. Commented Apr 27 at 16:59
  • @Lowri See the last edit.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 28 at 13:04
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    @Mark that is far from a definition. Some options in there: (1) supernatural is "otherworldly" (not really helpful as this just deflects the definition problem), (2) supernatural is not different than the natural (this would answer your question if this is the definition you're using), (3) supernatural is that which is not controllable by laws (this would also answer your question if this is the definition you're using). Pick a definition, and we can answer your question.
    – Lowri
    Commented Apr 28 at 14:13
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NO,

Going by the definitions you gave us, "supernatural" covers those aspects of reality that cannot be investigated using a scientific method, or that (in other words) cannot be objectified. So, any theory regarding supernatural, would be subjective and its predictions would be never be attributed to the theory (in a generally consensus).

If we accept that reality is one, since there is order, everything is bound - one way or another - by laws. It's that these laws cannot be investagated using our current intellectual tools; we need our spiritual tools to do that.

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  • So in other words: sure, you can do that, but it would be useless.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Apr 27 at 13:00
  • Why can't there be objective supernatural laws that we can't test with nature?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented Apr 27 at 23:47
  • @Rabbi Kaii, objective they are, but we can't see them as such : beyond intellectual conception. Commented Apr 28 at 6:43

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