Reflections on the Supernatural

“If we can observe it, it is by definition natural.”

On a pragmatic level, there is nothing wrong with the above statement. Let’s say you see an apple fly up into the air and out of your sight. This very observation seems to fly against (literally and figuratively) what we know about gravity and how fruits normally behave, for the simple reason that under normal circumstances, there is usually not a force that propels an apple into the air. Thus, in keeping with the theory of gravity, we start to find plausible reasons for why the apple flew into the air.

Was it shot out of a cannon that we didn’t see? Was there a thin string attached to the apple and pulled on the other side by an airplane? Or perhaps more importantly, could our observation be a figment of the imagination? If so, were there other people who saw this apple?

My answer to this question of whether the mysterious flying apple is always natural phenomenon is complicated on two levels. The actual motion of the apple flying into the air (if proven beyond a doubt that I was not imagining it) is undoubtedly a natural event, for the simple reason that it happened in our universe.

Yet, I believe there is something more when we say a phenomenon is natural; a natural phenomenon not only occurs in the natural, observable world, but is wholly contained by it—in all causes and relations. To understand my point, let me point you to another hypothetical situation.

Let’s pretend we all hear a voice. I’m not talking about the kind of mysterious, unverifiable voice that is supposed to be interpreted metaphorically through vague, general signs—the kind that religious people claim is “God answering prayers.” No, I mean an audible voice (preferably in English, but Cantonese is fine too) that we can all hear with our ears.

By all means, the mysterious audible sound—constituted physically by the molecules that vibrate along with the undulating sound waves in the air—is entirely a natural phenomenon. Yet, to call the voice natural by definition is to avoid the possibility that the cause (and the event’s relations to other things) of this voice is natural, for which I point out that it could possibly not be. Scientists may try to understand the presence of this voice by hypothesizing that it comes from natural causes like alien technology or the KGB, but one could also say that the spirits of the Underworld are talking to us. The ability to observe an event does not automatically exclude the possibility of supernaturalism in that event’s causes and relations.

Don’t get me wrong. To acknowledge the possibility of supernaturalism as a part of the theoretical/paradigmatic framework for events is not to suggest that supernatural explanations are equally valid. As it stands, there is absolutely no evidence for the supernatural, or for any need to think that supernatural explanations are needed to explain anything. So much for the Intelligent Design proponents, who have been thoroughly and completely discredited in the court room and in the scientific community. And how unfortunate it is for religious people in general, whose prophets and gods happen to only talk to them in private, making revelations only by whispering to select people in illiterate and backwards places thousands of years ago, and performing great miracles only to cease whenever science starts to flourish.

No, I don’t think I’m detracting from science at all. In fact, by acknowledging the possibility of supernaturalism, I believe we can better appreciate and understand the natural explanations that we have already, thanks to the immense progress of science. I suggest therefore, that instead of laughing at the person who claims to know for sure that the mysterious flying apple was caused by Yoda harnessing the power of the Force, perhaps we could do our own investigation and work to find a natural explanation that is supported by the evidence, strong in predictive power, and logically consistent. The same goes for any similarly disputed events.

I’ll close with words from PZ Myers: “If you’ve got a religious belief that withers in the face of observations of the natural world, you ought to rethink your beliefs — rethinking the world isn’t an option.”


Posted on January 19, 2011, in Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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