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 illicit 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. – Ben 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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