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Assume the supernatural does exist, and consists of beings/forces that can interact with our natural universe in ways that are contrary to the natural laws of this universe (at least as we know them).

Take any generic or historical example of the supernatural, such as miracles, spiritual/supernatural revelations, sixth senses (in some contexts), angels/demons, various explanations of God/gods, vampires/werewolves, etc. Whichever you like or is your favorite. In general, you just need a being which exists in another dimension/plane of existance, and can at least one-way interact with ours in a way that "breaks" the laws of nature.

What evidence can exist or could be captured for these beings/forces/events truly being supernatural? Is it possible that they could be scientifically tested or proven? To what level or extent?

Any supernatural event which is observable (a faith healing, for example) could have witnesses, which provides some amount of legal/historical evidence, but is there any way to extend this into a more rigorous scientific test? For example, if we were able to know that a supernatural event was going to occur at a given time, and capture whatever data we desire, can this ever rise to a higher level of proof than the courtroom style proof?


Note: This probably applies to many other similar questions, such as proof for one of the many multi-verse hypotheses, proof for free will/dualism, etc. I think it may also work for proof of alien encounters...

  • I see questions here, but what is the question about philosophy? – virmaior Dec 8 '15 at 23:40
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    What do you define as "truly being supernatural?" I have found with this particular topic, the treatment "supernatural" receives dominates the discussion that follows. As one trivial example: if supernatural means 'not explainable by natural means,' and science seeks to prove everything by 'natural means,' science will never prove the supernatural, because it is defined as doing otherwise. – Cort Ammon Dec 8 '15 at 23:45
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    Supernatural = not in nature, transcending it. Proof = relation to/explanation by fact in nature (taken as sum of all facts, realm of science and experience etc.). Therefore supernatural, by definition, means not provable. Not provable means that it is meaningless unless it is transcendental to something provable. Just 2 kantian cents. – Philip Klöcking Dec 8 '15 at 23:48
  • @virmaior Correct me if I am wrong, but is it not philosophical to ponder on how one proves what is real and what the basic nature of reality is? – LightCC Dec 8 '15 at 23:49
  • @LightCC: If that is your only question, read the questions already answered on that topic first, they are to the right under "related" and have already been highlighted to you by writing this question. – Philip Klöcking Dec 8 '15 at 23:53
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I think what makes your question difficult to answer is that it depends up the meanings of several words:

  • Supernatural
  • Evidence
  • Witness
  • Proof

Many of these are notoriously difficult to define on their own. Trying to define them together oft results in trivial results.

For example, it is trivial to demonstrate that there can be no proof of the supernatural. Any supernatural effect would have to be unpredicted by our existing empirical models. Its study would result in one of two outcomes:

  • It defies scientific analysis, in which case it is unproven scientifically
  • It submits to scientific analysis, in which case it becomes part of "nature." (See quantum mechanics for an excellent example of positively bizarre results being woven into a model, defended empirically with experiments, and is now considered "natural")

By contrast, religion continuously declares the existence of supernatural, and offers its supernatural story as proof. This proof is clearly not scientific (though some try), but it qualifies as proof to them. To discard their claims requires us to define "prove" in a way that excludes their claims. There are many definitions suggested, but most "non-scientific proof" criteria fall short of what we tend to want to call "proof," just as scientific "proofs" tend to fall short of what mathematicians call "proof."

There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of attempts to prove the supernatural by doing statistical studies on "witnesses" to try to determine a criteria of truthood for them. Generally speaking, witnesses have proven notoriously unreliable in this regard.

To dig deeper into this region of philosophy is difficult with these vague terms. Epistemology studies what can be known, and has many terms which are more suited for the venture: deduction, induction, and abduction being particularly useful example terms. It even serves as an effective treatment for the concept of "witness," which is more complicated it appears at first. If you look into epistemology, you'll learn the approaches and words which can be used to phrase your question in a way that elicits less of a trivializing answer. It's a good line of questioning, its just one that's hard for the Stack Exchange Q&A format to assist you with unless you acquire the vernacular first.

  • I freely admit I'm a philosophical layman and don't have a command of all the proper terms. I agree that one can trivialize the answer by term definition. To me that typically (but not always) is just a way of avoiding the original question. But there are cases where it is clearly not. Thanks for the answer - I am always willing to learn, but often lazy with respect to learning better technical vocabulary for these types of inquiries... – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:36
  • @LightCC: Well, philosophy is essentially a development of a more technical vocabulary in order to investigate and explicate an inferential framework of terms. Otherwise every native speaker of a language could be a "philosopher" just by virtue of being able to properly use language. Especially Philosophy.SE encourages to ask for and answer by specific technical usage of specific philosophers. – Philip Klöcking Dec 9 '15 at 0:47
  • Also, I'm not sure that expanding the natural realm to contain any future proof of the supernatural always is really a destruction of the supernatural. It certainly has been in many cases in recent history (last 400 years or so). But say that we find a way to translate ourselves into another dimension which has "angels/demons" and a different set of "laws of existence". Expanding our natural world to include this new multiverse and saying it is no longer "supernatural" would seem... I'm not sure the word for it - Pretentious? Deceptive? Just wrong? – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:47
  • @PhilipKlöcking I will step up my game then! :) – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:48
  • @LightCC What if we translated ourselves to a dimension where denizens of that dimension could demonstrate telepathy, or even run straight through solid walls like they aren't even there? Some could even exist in regions where you could prove none could possibly survive. Would we include these as "natural law" or would they be seen as unnatural because you had to leave the world you know behind to get there? The study of the supernatural does inherently lead back to the study of the natural. (Those behaviors, by the way, are anthropomorphisms of common quantum mechanics behaviors) – Cort Ammon Dec 9 '15 at 1:11
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Yes, of course.

You can *scientifically prove** things deemed supernatural. But once you do, they are no longer supernatural. They are "natural," as demonstrated by the methods of the natural sciences.

However, you are probably wasting your time on the various hobgoblins and eerie powers you list. We do not see such phenomena, werewolves, resurrections, or mind controls, requiring scientific explanation. One must first demonstrate them publicly and repeatedly, which in most cases defies their very definition.

As Hume pointed out, what we mean by a "miracle" is precisely that which cannot be predicted, controlled, or experimentally repeated. We now fly, cure plague, transmit voices over miles, and perform other formerly "miraculous" deeds. But they are no longer "miracles," except metaphorically.

Likewise, magnetism, seances, ghosts, and such have often intrigued hopeful scientists and philosophers. With his tolerant epistemology, William James, for one, "liked to turn the lights down low, to give miracles a chance," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. The search is never over, the possibilities are never finally foreclosed.

So it is not impossible that some of the Weird World shenanigans you mention may be coaxed into science. We never saw X-rays before, so perhaps meaningful "auras" will be detected. We never operated machines with direct neural input before, so perhaps such capacities may be somehow projected telepsychically. We never created genetically monstrous mice or glowing rabbits before, so perhaps werewolves are right around the corner.

The point is that you mistake the categories. Anything can become an object of scientific method. But once it is adequately demonstrated, contextualized within existing bodies of theory, passes experimental testing, and test results are repeatable "at will" we no longer call it "supernatural." And, of course, there's the problem of research funding...

  • Thanks Nelson, but I do want to point out I didn't limit the discussion to scientific inquiry or proof (though scientific proof is not limited to the scientific method and can include empirical data alone). I find it interesting (and somewhat funny actually), that you can substitute "supernatural" in my question for something like "aliens" and can pretty much as the same question unchanged... and have the same answers. – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:53
  • So, thinking on this a bit more, is the crux of your answer that the body of evidence shows that scientific inquiry has answered the natural explanation for things that people who lived before the age of reason would have called "supernatural" that the bar of evidence is so high it cannot be met? – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:55
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    I don't know about the bar being "high." Science is just a method of definition, falsification, prediction, experiment, etc., ending in a hypothetical consensus that is always open to revision, given new evidence. Certainly, there are many things we do not know. Many may contradict or revise our current "laws of nature." But things we term "supernatural" are assumed not to be in the realm of "natural science." They may just be intermittent, uncontrollable, random, perceived by only a few. As such, they are not "provable" in the "scientific" sense. – Nelson Alexander Dec 9 '15 at 1:31
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I think you need to separate the supernatural into two categories:

  • Religious Supernatural: Miracles, Divine intervention, Angels, etc...these by definition fall outside of the realm of science and cannot be tested. Testing requires reproducibility and falsification, and neither of these apply in the case of religious supernatural events. The whole point of miracles is that God supposedly made the rules of who the universe works, and he is the only one who can break them.
  • Occult Supernatural: Vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches, etc...if anyone were to ever prove the existence of such beings, then we would simply have to update the laws of science to take their existence into account. You can already see this in the literature that deals with this type of fantasy - those who deal with these types of beings are portrayed as scientists who simply specialize in unusual domains of inquiry.

Either way, proving beyond doubt that something supernatural occurred is very unlikely. If something truly outlandish happened (Say a person levitating or a truly improbable healing like a long time amputee having his natural limb restored), there would only be two ways of convincing normal rational people of it's truth:

  • Either you would somehow be able to reproduce the event at will.
  • The event occurred in front of a substantial amount of independent witnesses who all testify to its occurrence.
  • As stated in the comments above, other explanations would have to be excluded, too. That is much more than just having a huge bunch of witnesses. We have them in every "magic" show in Las Vegas every day, but there is nothing supernatural happening, there is just no apparent explanation for them. – Philip Klöcking Dec 9 '15 at 0:07
  • I appreciate the answer. Thank you. I don't think angels/demons fit into the first category because as I understand the myths/literature they do not have unlimited power. Regarding your initial assertion that miracles/divine intervention are untestable - I'm not so sure, doesn't your first answer at the end potentially conflict with that assertion? – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:20
  • "I'm not so sure, doesn't your first answer at the end potentially conflict with that assertion?" No - because testing and proving are two separate things. We can rely on witnesses or archeological evidence to prove that something happened but you will never be able to test it. – Alexander S King Dec 9 '15 at 0:32
  • I agree you would need some kind of repeatability and/or interaction for testability. I need to know that the event is upcoming so I can gather data. For example, if the genie gives me 3 wishes, and I've only used 1 so far... – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 5:36
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In Hegels Logic, there is the following in the introduction to the first book on Being:

So much is logic natural to the human being, indeed is his very nature. If however we contrast nature as such, as the realm of the physical, with the realm of the spiritual, then we must say that logic is the supernatural element that permeates all his natural behaviour, his ways of sensing, intuiting, desiring ...

And logic has its methods of proofs and demonstrations.

  • I take this definition of the supernatural to be one that explains it from a dualism perspective. The natural being physical and the supernatural that which is spiritual. But I'm not clear on what the claim of proof is here. Is Hegel saying that the fact that we are logical is a supernatural element inherent to us? This would be a proof (by definition?) that we are dualistic in nature, then, wouldn't it? – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 5:19
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If testable is interpreted as it is usually interpreted in science at least two conditions will have to be met. First, the supernatural would have to be recurrent and/or reproducible, either we can observe some violation of natural laws at predictable times (say crucifix bleeding on certain dates), or better yet stage experiments that induce occurrence of such violations. Second, it would have to be manifestable, an exalted mystical experience private to a person, no matter how expert and trustworthy, will not do. I suspect however that if these conditions are met whatever the phenomena in question are would be moved from the supernatural to the natural column, and studied scientifically.

Singular events, supernatural or not, can be a subject of something like a historical study, and there is a notion of confirmation based on availability of credible and documented accounts. However, this credibility often incorporates the idea that at a minimum these accounts are physically plausible. So singular miracles say would require an extraordinary level of documentation to overcome the credibility gap.

Supernatural as in violations of natural laws is often conflated with low probability events, like "unlikely" escapes or healings. These are not supernatural even if they are colloquially hyperbolized as "nothing short of a miracle". We know that human probabilistic intuition is very faulty, and sees miracles where there are none due to the base rate fallacy. Vatican's standard for a miraculous healing for example is that the recovery must be "complete," "instantaneous," "durable" and "scientifically inexplicable". However, on scientific view statistical flukes, while inexplicable, are not miraculous. Again, there would have to be a recurrent pattern and high levels of supporting documentation to infer some kind of supernatural statistically.

  • I appreciate the response and tend to agree with the analysis. I think there is room for possible testability if one can find a way to induce repetition of the event. For example, capture a vampire and run experiments (for the fun example!). A faith healer who is able to heal repeatedly could be another. But in general, I agree on the guidelines you suggest. – LightCC Dec 9 '15 at 0:28
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A lot of this will of course depend on who you ask. In my own religious tradition, the claim is that miracles rarely happen (i.e., they do happen, but even the circumstances in which they happen is not a repeatable common-place process). The Catholic Church does have groups that asks a different but related question: for a given claim of something miraculous (a miracle healing or an apparition, for example), was it in fact miraculous?

  • Famously, there is the notion of a Devil's Advocate, who's job it was to poke holes in miraculous claims by showing that they were fraudulent or explainable by natural causes.

  • Recently, people in a town called Medjugorje claimed to see Mary (the mother of Jesus), and the Catholic Church later declared that there was insufficient evidence for that to happen.

  • Many have studied Lourdes as an example where there are many reports of miraculous healings. Individual healings have been demonstrated to be beyond humanity's scientific knowledge, but since the process of healing itself is non-repeatable, experimenting a scientific sense isn't possible.

In these three examples or in any others one could cite, it is important to note that these take the form more of a trial or a historical inquiry, and not a scientific experiment. Since (at least, Catholics would claim) miracles are non-repeatable historical events, it seems appropriate to take an approach more similar to asking a question like "Did Caesar conquer Gaul?" rather than "How long does it take for this object to fall?"

  • Similar to other answers - appreciate the extra citations. Consensus seems to be historical/witness/empirical evidence only, which means you need to decide for yourself, based on the evidence - no scientific method possible. Unless you can repeatedly cause, or get a supernatural being to repeatedly cause, supernatural events. – LightCC Dec 12 '15 at 4:37

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