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From a naturalistic perspective, it is possible to argue that the supernatural not only doesn't exist, but cannot even be defined. The reasoning goes that anything which "appears" to be supernatural, is simply misunderstood or conforms to laws of nature of which humans are not yet aware.

Is this line of reasoning sound and there is only the natural, or can the supernatural be properly defined?


Traditional instances of supernatural acts and beings would include God/god(s), angels/devils, miracles, vampires/werewolves, magic spells, ghosts/spirits, etc.


Edit based on comments: The question was intended to elicit answers that argue for or against the possibility of defining what supernatural is, especially with regard to a backdrop of naturalism (vs. dualism, I suppose?). In my mind it is implicit that a good/proper definition would include testability in some fashion.

  • hey Light, is the Multiverse an instance in the supernatural? – robert bristow-johnson Nov 24 '15 at 6:55
  • It's hard to say. I'd need more details on what you believe the multiverse entails, I believe, to make a call on that. I could see versions of the multiverse that simply explain "historically supernatural" events/beings, but there is yet the possibility for something beyond the physical "multiverse" which controls them, if they, indeed, exist. Of course, this still gets to the chicken-and-egg question of whether that larger frame of existence which contains those beings/forces/events is just an expanded natural universe/multi-verse... – LightCC Nov 28 '15 at 8:12
  • okay, Light: you say something very interesting (and good, IMO): " In my mind it is implicit that a good/proper definition would include testability in some fashion." pick any of the multiverse hypotheses. i'll tell you that the Bubble universe, the Many Worlds, and the String Landscape hypotheses seem to me to be the most believable, but pick anyone and tell us what are the testable claims made. name a single testable claim of any multiverse hypothesis. – robert bristow-johnson Nov 28 '15 at 20:56
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    I disagree with your premise, "From a naturalistic perspective, it is possible to argue that the supernatural not only doesn't exist, but cannot even be defined." That is not an argument, it's a presupposition. – user18800 Jan 4 '16 at 21:00
  • @BenPiper Even if it's a presupposition, that doesn't mean anyone has to agree that it is true, thus we "argue" about both whether the logic is correct (valid) and whether the presupposition/premise is true or false. If either one of the premises is false or the logic is invalid, then we cannot make a truth claim about the conclusion. Thus, I'm asking for whether this presupposition is correct. – LightCC Jan 5 '16 at 9:25
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In a dualistic view of the world that splits off spirit from matter, you can distinguish the supernatural as being related to those events where spirit has causative power in the world. Demons/angles/ghosts are all considered to have some kind of underlying spirit and are even more "pure spirit" than humans. Things like ESP and telekinesis are also related to a direct connection between mind and matter. In this view of things, the relationship between human spirit and the body (at the pituitary) is also supernatural.

So it goes like this

  1. Identify "spirits" as separate from normal matter
  2. Identify entities and/or events where their spiritual nature is the key aspect
  3. Identify those entities/events as being supernatural

Most of the time the cleave is between spirit and matter, sometimes between consciousness and matter, but in either case I think this way of splitting thew world is due to human's psychological proclivity to assign will and intent to causes.
However, there's no reason why someone couldn't split off something else, alternate dimensions say, and setup the natural/super-natural distinction on the basis of it.

Even if you accept that there is this separation between natural and supernatural, this, without further beliefs, does not preclude the possibility of studying the supernatural and identifying regularities in its behaviour.

The key aspect of naturalism is denying that it is sensible to cleave off aspects of the universe as having "separate rules" (or no knowable rules at all).

  • Thanks Dave - well rounded and answers pretty directly. A very general, open-ended definition borrowing from dualism, and the indication that naturalism just simply denies it is possible. I do still think there is a definition of the supernatural, that if the burden of proof is met, essentially proves dualism and disproves naturalism, though one could 'fake it' and just claim the new realms/beings/etc. are just part of a larger natural world we now know about... – LightCC Nov 20 '15 at 1:17
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The question asked and the one described are different. You asked if it is possible to define "the supernatural." The answer to that question is, yes. It has been done in many dictionaries, and the word very simply is used to cover all things which have no cause in nature or causality.

Within the description you changed the question with the caveat that the definition is "from the naturalistic perspective," which has the obvious answer, "no." It is impossible to claim something you cannot define does not exist (naturally it is impossible to prove a negative). So is this question actually asking if supernatural phenomena are "physically real?" Can any physical qualities of the supernatural be predicted by experimentation?

Let's first define what it means to be physically real. In 1935 after the bizarre observations of quantum entanglement Albert Einstein wrote a "criterion of physical reality" in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper to define this:

if without in any way disturbing a system, we can predict with certainty the value of a physical quantity, then there exists an element of physical reality corresponding to this physical quantity. - Albert Einstein

So is it "yes" or "no?" This is not actually a dilemma because science abhors the truth - a final and unyielding philosophy. Many have faith in spiritual truths, yet science cannot investigate this truth at all — or even tell us whether it exists. (U.C. Berkeley) Scientists strive to build knowledge about the natural world that corresponds to the way the natural world really works (what is physically real and predictable). This will forever be changing.

In science, truth is, by definition, a malleable and perfectly revisable thing. (Berkeley Science Review)

If science is not seeking absolute truth then what is it? Consider the laws of Newtonian physics - at one time they were scientifically true. Due to the discovery of quantum mechanics, we know it is a general and conditional fact of reality. His relations are only good for objects that have a constant mass, and nothing except an object at rest has a truly constant mass. "f = m x a" is therefore not actually true, and it cannot be used to perfectly predict any momentum; only very very closely so. The difference doesn't change the usefulness of f=m*a in calculating physical phenomena such as orbits and fuel loads. True or not, Newton's laws are useful, and therefore they are science.

Why are scientific facts not truths? Officially, the definition of science at The Science Council is:

Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

The most important word is at the very beginning: "Science is the pursuit." Science is not an end and will not produce an end - a truth. The book on what is real and what is not will never be closed - it will always and forever be willing to rewrite itself. If you omit the tolerance for revision and assume some natural explanation is "the truth," then you have just created a religion. The scientific method awards the best solution to a problem among competing theories. It never tests if the theory is "true," it is simply a better explanation than the other offers. One of the key tools to measure which is best is Occam's razor Every law and principle of nature is and always will be the most parsimonious solution given all known evidence. Every single scientific fact MUST have that caveat: "Given our current evidence." As new evidence which challenges any scientific principle arrives, it becomes necessary to re-test our scientific knowledge. Every natural law and theory must bend to it.

Evidence is defined as:

Empirical evidence is information acquired by observation or experimentation. Scientists record and analyze this data. The process is a central part of the scientific method.

Obviously any thing which cannot be repeated, cannot be observed; thus it is not evidence. If I do X, and I get Y as a result, it becomes evidence if and only if that process is repeatable. On the other hand, if I create cold fusion in a jar in my kitchen, that only becomes science when someone else can repeat it. Also, if it can be observed, it is evidence.

The fact that no one else has not repeated the cold fusion experiment does NOT proclaim that it did not happen. It states the following:

  • Cold fusion in a jar was not observed - it is not evidence
  • The process to create cold fusion in a jar cannot be repeated, it is not evidence
  • The cold fusion in a jar is not science - it has no useful purpose
  • Because it can't happen today, it most likely (but not absolutely) did not happen then.

The exact same is true of supernatural phenomena. Can we repeat a miraculous healing? A divine calling to serve in Africa? The parting of the Red Sea? If we can repeat it, then it becomes "physically real" and can be called "natural."

A definition of Supernatural as "unreal" Consider you have observed something happen. By the definition above, that makes it evidence to everyone who observed it. Now let's describe what needs to be true for this happening to be supernatural:

  • The happening cannot be repeated (If it could be repeated, it would be real)

  • We cannot predict the value of any physical quality without disturbing the system (we cannot predict the color, temperature, size, weight, volume, darkness, speed, or any other physical quality of the happening)

Under the above conditions, the thing which was observed to happen (the evidence) is classified as supernatural. It happened, it was observed, and it is not physically real.

This DOES mean that a supernatural event can never be predicted

This does NOT mean supernatural events are only ghosts and illusions

Give an example of what is and is not supernatural:

  1. A Hindu Yogi meditates and practices yoga until he achieves anima. Several people are surrounding him and witness him shrink away to nothingness. Is this a supernatural phenomenon?

    • It was observed; there is evidence
    • His physical size was reduced, as predicted; the phenomena is real
    • If he meditates and does yoga again, it will repeat. No this is not supernatural. There exists a natural explanation by nature of its repeatability and predictability.
  2. At 8:30pm, April 2, 1968 hundreds of people watch an illuminated woman defying gravity and walk around the dome of St. Mark's Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt. This happened many times on different nights. Ask the same questions:

    • It was observed - it is evidence
    • The dome was illuminated - a physical quantity was changed, but not predictable
    • If the people pray or do other acts, the apparition will not repeat Yes at this time the apparition would be considered supernatural.

However, science has an obligation to attempt to frame all evidence into natural terms, without care for how rational that attempt is. Again, it is a pursuit. So scientists have tried to explain the lights in natural terms, leading one paper to be published in 1989 hypothesizing that the apparition was a theorized natural luminous phenomena resulting from tectonic strain, or, a kugelblitz. The paper was published without any experimentation, using only a 0.56 correlation between earth lights being reported before tectonic activity.

A Kugelblitz has only been a hypothesis however one was allegedly finally caught on film in 2014 using a slitless spectrograph. It lasted less than 2 seconds.

Thus no matter how absurd and unproven a natural answer to evidence may be, Science will always find "the best" natural answer to any phenomena. But this is not a problem, it has a purpose.

Let's look at what would happen if we allow supernatural answers, even if they were factually true, into our science:

James goes to the hospital with stage 4 cancer throughout his whole body. He is incurable. Some of his family pray for hi, and God heals him (truthfully). He returns to the hospital and is completely cancer-free after only 2 days.

Now, let's assume that even the doctors are religious. Would they write in their report, "James came into the hospital, thorough tests revealed stage 4 cancer throughout his body. Through a miracle, James was healed. Patient released."

Even if that report were completely true, how does it help Suzy with cancer in the next room? It's completely useless in helping other cancer patients. So the religious doctor is going set aside his personal beliefs, come up with the most sensible natural explanation and include that in the report. Can you imagine the world if this did not happen?

Natural explanations do not care if something is true. Only if it works.

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    Excellent, more so this being your first(??) answer here. Welcome! I would tone down the last para tho'. It's necessary to distinguish 3 things: a. The multi trillion dollar institution called science (research) b. The rare conscientious individual science practitioners c. The loud ignoramus spokesmen. a. is a machine driven by money&war c (Dawkins, Harris, Coyne etc) call themselves scientists; they are really scientism-ists b. however is a non empty set. – Rusi-packing-up Sep 18 at 11:19
  • Scietism-ists. I prefer calling them celebrities (follow the $$), but we're definitely on the same page. Toned down. – Vogon Poet Sep 18 at 17:20
  • This answer has many good qualities; however, did it answer the question? The original question did not include the word science. You seem to be arguing for why science must not utilize a supernatural explanation, saying "natural explanations do not care if something is true. Only if it works.". Do you mean that science is inexorably tied to Naturalism? At the same time, you also seem to be distancing science from seeking truth, which is the realm of philosophy. If both are true, then does that reinforce that science is not part of the answer? – LightCC Sep 18 at 22:36
  • @LightCC - The study of the natural world is called science. A question about how to do anything in nature necessarily involves the study of nature - science. Science defines nature, he wants to know a definition. "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experimentation" – Vogon Poet Sep 18 at 22:57
  • I'll add that my answer is long, but you can see that since the definition of supernatural makes it untestable, and therefore it cannot be either proven or disproven empirically. By definition, something that can be proven or disproven with repeatable tests is natural. Even if God did it. – Vogon Poet Sep 18 at 23:03
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The debate dates back at least to the Natural Philosophy of the Renaissance; see e.g Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525) :

Referring to contemporary chronicles, Pomponazzi recalls events which many considered to be miraculous, such as a group prayers driving away clouds or entire communities persuaded that they had seen saints appear in the sky. In such cases, he explains, it is not necessary to assume the intervention of supernatural entities interfering with the ordinary system of cosmic causality. The disappearance of clouds or the apparition of saints are to be explained instead by the physical influence which a crowd at prayer exerts on vapors in the atmosphere or by species in the sky.

Then, we have to see 17th Century empirism; see The impact of Hume's “Of Miracles”.

You can see also :

  • I agree with your commentary, and these are good sources, but what is your conclusion on whether it is possible to define the supernatural? – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 11:37
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    @LightCC - it is a "philosophical" question, and not only a matter of definition. If we stay with a "naturalistic" approach according to all that happens in the world has a "natural" cause and obeys to laws, then the existence of an "unexplained" fact is due only to our (temporary ?) ignorance of the laws or causes involved. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Nov 19 '15 at 12:34
  • I'm not necessarily asking for the definition, but the reasoning as to why it could or could not be defined. Perhaps it boils down to a simple debate of naturalism vs. dualism? – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 20:01
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The reasoning goes that anything which "appears" to be supernatural, is simply misunderstood or conforms to laws of nature of which humans are not yet aware.

I had asked a similar question a few weeks ago with regards to the dualism/materialism debate (arguably very close to your question if you consider belief in spirits, ghosts and angels to be a form of dualism). If we ever do prove the existence of a separate mental substance, then doesn't that simply mean that we have to change the laws of physics and nature to accommodate this discovery, as opposed to saying there is a nonphysical dimension to the mind?

One of the answers I got applies to your question as well: It might be possible to come up with a negative proof that the supernatural exists, along the lines of Gödel's incompleteness theorem or Turing's undecidability result. Kant also gave a negative result with regards to the limits of human knowledge.

Let's elaborate on the second example: Turing proved in 1936 that there are problems that no turing machine can ever solve. Since it it is conjectured that all computers are equivalent to Turing machines (All modern computers are Turing-equivalent), this amounts to saying that there are some problems that no computer will ever be able to solve.

Similarly, a definition of the supernatural may be provided by a negative result on the limits of physics (and other natural sciences). One might be able to prove that some phenomena can never be explained by any naturalistic theory. Such a negative result would provide a clear boundary between the natural and the supernatural (and prove the existence of the supernatural in the process).

Otherwise, as you said, any proof or evidence of supernatural phenomena would simply mean that we need to update the laws of science, as opposed to defining a separate realm for the supernatural.


  • Please note that I am not saying that Gödel, Turing, or Kant's results have anything to do with the supernatural themselves. I am just saying that a similar methodology and negative result is the only way one would ever be able to prove and properly define the supernatural.

  • I would separate vampires/werewolves from the other examples, since in that case, it would be a simple update to the known facts of biology, as opposed to a paradigm shift within science itself

  • I like the line of thought, and is sort of what might have been rolling around in the back of my mind - is there a way to define a type of being, phenomena, plane of existence that is so outside of the traditional thought on naturalism, that it cannot be accepted that the naturalist can properly adopt it without the admission that he's had to fundamentally change what he believes about how the universe works. Side note: I'm on the fence with vampires/werewolves. It boils down to the definition of supernatural and whether they are able to break laws of nature unbreakable by "naturals" – LightCC Nov 20 '15 at 1:07
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It's a question of ontology: the basic things that one admits there are, and how one distinguishes or characterises them.

For example, suppose that there is a God; then by your criteria we would have to admit Him as a natural phenomena; and this is why Aristotle discusses notions such as nous and the first mover in a book called Physics.

The problematic here though is that no distinguishing concepts are introduced: to call everything that is - natural, is almost to say nothing at all.

  • I agree, and this is useful as a response. However, isn't there a middle ground? For example, if a naturalist needs to expand his natural universe (through proof of existence) to include laws, beings, and phenomena which exactly match what a dualist describes as supernatural, hasn't he inherently lost the fight, even though he retained a rather empty "natural superuniverse", expanded to include laws, beings and phenomena that he didn't believe possible before the proof was given? (granted, a lot of assumptions here...) – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 22:23
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Let me give you proof that it is possible to define "supernatural."

1) Supernatural is anything that is not natural.

2) I can also define it as any thing that does not affect, directly or indirectly, at least one of our 5 senses.

3) If a test can be created, and a result obtained/observed, then it is natural, otherwise, it is supernatural.

  • I disagree with this formulation, but it is well within a naturalist's viewpoint. Historical examples of the supernatural that I gave are supernatural because they defy the laws of nature as we generally experience them and we are not able to testably repeat them. Supernatural events (historically) have a cause outside of natural law and therefore are not testable in a repeatable experiment, which is not the same as being undetectable or unobservable. Or so the argument goes... – LightCC Nov 28 '15 at 8:19
  • i'd still like to know @LightCC, whether or not the existence of parallel universes (often called the Multiverse) is considered by you to be natural or supernatural? and i am just fine if you put it in terms of testable or not testable. another concept would be string theory or M-theory. is belief in either a belief in the natural? – robert bristow-johnson Nov 30 '15 at 2:35
  • @robertbristow-johnson My answer is a stunning "maybe". Do these alternate universes/dimensions explain what we have historically called the supernatural? Or is there still a "God", who is beyond even the multi-verse and has control over it, etc.? – LightCC Dec 6 '15 at 17:59
  • @LightCC - i'm only saying that defining the "supernatural" might have to include all phenomena that cannot be detected or measured in any manner. none of us will ever build either a God-measuring experiment nor a multiverse-measuring experiment. – robert bristow-johnson Dec 6 '15 at 19:07
  • @robertbristow-johnson Understood, undetectable/unmeasurable is certainly part of the supernatural set. The big question: Is it all of the set. At this point, we don't know enough to know if the multi-verse (if it exists) is ultimately measurable. Certainly God (if he exists as most would define him) can make himself measurable, or not, as he chooses. – LightCC Dec 8 '15 at 4:10
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From a naturalistic view point supernatural objects and one-way interactions from a supernatural domain to the natural domain do not exist.

Nevertheless, such a supernatural domain is possible, i.e. we may - and humans actually do - create a fictitious domain populated with gods, angels, spirits and other creatures you mention. Many religious myths exist which figure out such a supernatural domain and its interaction with our natural world. And these myths even affect the mind of their believers.

Hence the problem is not to define, what a supernatural domain is or looks like. The problem is to argue from a naturalistic view point that a supernatural domain is not real but an imagination or a misinterpretation of reality.

Added after LightCC comments, that he/she asks how checking whether the supernatural exists:

I use the definition of the supernatural as given above.

One cannot exclude the existence of the supernatural: Similarly, I cannot exclude the existence of Martians. But I am not in charge of finding arguments against the existence of Martians. Instead it is the task of those who hold that Martians exist to give arguments for their claim. In general, one cannot show that something does not exist. The proponent of its existence can always claim, that one has to continue or to improve the search.

But as soon as the proponent of the existence of supernatural facts has stated his arguments, one can consider each of them in detail. In case the argument will show an interaction from the domain of the supernatural: How strong is the evidence that the interaction took place indeed? Does a natural explanation also exist? How general is the explanation, is it an ad-hoc explanation?

  • Thank you for your comments, but an awful lot of presuppositions here. Like an assumption that the supernatural doesn't exist. This gets to the root of my question, I suppose - is it legitimate to apriori define the supernatural out of possibility/existence? Isn't there some set of rules that can be set up to make it testable - perhaps separate "planes of existence" that do have, as you mention, one-way interactions, beings that are subject to a different set of laws then we are, etc.? – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 20:11
  • @LightCC Your post asks for a definition of the supernatural, it does not ask for a test whether the supernatural is real. If that's your point, could you please edit your post. – Jo Wehler Nov 19 '15 at 20:27
  • Thanks, I will consider editing, but I am a philosophical layman - I was assuming testability follows from definition - in other words, if there is no way to test the supernatural, then it isn't properly defined. Am I assuming incorrectly? (Note I'm assuming a wide variety of possible evidence/proofs in that statement) – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 21:41
  • @LightCC I expanded my answer to cover also the question who is in charge to make proposals for testing. – Jo Wehler Nov 19 '15 at 21:55
  • Thank you for your comments. While it doesn't directly answer the question, I find it useful context. – LightCC Nov 19 '15 at 22:15
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Traditionally and definitionally, God was the only supernatural being. He had created the natural order - the universe and everything in it.

God Himself was super-natural - i.e. above the natural order He had created.

This order included all the myriad monsters and creatures and ghasties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. They were part of the universe he had created, i.e. they were part of the natural order.

Over time, this distinction has been lost, and supernatural has come to mean anything mystical, or unreal, or not part of the scientifically-catalogued aspect of the world.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE! This is certainly one biased take on the question. "Traditionally," of course, depends on the tradition - many traditions say that, for example, there are angels. – James Kingsbery Nov 20 '15 at 13:08
  • Given your response, how then would you define the supernatural? Is there a way to define it that is testable? That is the crux of my question. – LightCC Nov 20 '15 at 14:06
  • @James Kingsbery In this answer, (as I had thought clear from context) the Judeo-Christian tradition. :-)I suspect it was true of pre-Mosaic Judaeism (and therefore the Samaritan tradition) too. But I'd have to delve. – Euan M Nov 21 '15 at 0:03
  • @LightCC I was supplying a pre-existing definition. The test in this case is "Are you the creator of the natural order and everything in it?" with a binary answer. – Euan M Nov 21 '15 at 0:05
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As the OP notes from within a naturalist perspective one cannot define the supernatural because naturalism does not believe it exists. As C. S. Lewis puts it (page 15):

Before the Naturalist and the Supernaturalist can begin to discuss their difference of opinion, they must surely have an agreed definition both of Nature and of Supernature. But unfortunately it is almost impossible to get such a definition. Just because the Naturalist thinks that nothing but Nature exists, the word Nature means to him merely 'everything' or 'the whole show' or 'whatever there is'. And if that is what we mean by Nature, then of course nothing else exists.

So Lewis goes about it in a "roundabout way" by defining first what the Naturalist believes in such a way that the difference between the Naturalist and the Supernaturalist can be seen by both sides. First, consider the Naturalist belief (page 16):

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can't go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord.

However, nothing particular within that vast process is going on of its own accord:

And any separate power of originating events is what the Naturalist denies. Spontaneity, originality, action 'on its own', is a privilege reserved for 'the whole show', which he calls Nature.

Lewis defines the Supernaturalist belief using similar terms: (page 17)

The Supernaturalist agrees with the Naturalist that there must be something which exists in its own right; some basic Fact whose existence it would be nonsensical to try to explain because this Fact is itself the ground or starting point of all explanations. But he does not identify this Fact with 'the whole show'. He thinks that things fall into two classes. In the first class we find either things or (more probably) One Thing which is basic and original, which exists on its own. In the second we find things which are merely derivative from that One Thing. The one basic Thing has caused all the other things to be. It exists on its own; they exist because it exists.

The supernatural would be that first class. The natural would be the derived class. Both the Naturalist and Supernaturalist believe in the existence of "some basic Fact". They differ in whether the basic Fact is nature or whether nature's existence is derivative from the basic Fact separate from it called the supernatural.

In this way one might be able to properly define the supernatural as the first class distinct from the natural or the derived class.

That Naturalist belief collapses the first class into the derived class is to be expected but that does not affect the definition. That Supernaturalist belief maintains the separation of the first class from the derived class is also to be expected and that also does not affect the definition.


Lewis, C. S. (1947). Miracles; a preliminary study. Retrieved on September 17, 2019 from Internet Archive.

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