The term supernatural
"above" + natura
"nature") pertains to entities, events or powers regarded as beyond nature
, in that they lack a clear scientific explanation. Religious miracles
are typical of such “supernatural” claims, as are spells
, the belief that there is an afterlife
for the dead, and innumerable others. Supernatural beliefs have existed in virtually all human cultures throughout recorded human history.
Supernatural themes are often associated with paranormal and occult ideas.
Adherents of supernatural beliefs hold that such occurrences exist just as surely as does the natural world, whereas opponents argue that there are natural, physical explanations for all such occurrences.
According to the strict materialist view, if something "supernatural" exists, it is by definition not supernatural. Are there forces beyond the natural forces studied by physics? Are there ways of sensing that go beyond our biological senses and instruments? Certainly there may always be things outside of the realm of human understanding, as of yet unconfirmed and dubious in existence, and some might term these "supernatural".
Argument and controversy has surrounded the issue on both sides. One complicating factor is that there is no exact definition of what “natural” is, and what the limits of naturalism might be. Concepts in the supernatural domain are closely related to concepts in religious spirituality and occultism or spiritualism. The term "supernatural" is often used interchangeably with paranormal or preternatural — the latter typically limited to an adjective for describing abilities which appear to exceed the bounds of possibility. See the nature of God in Western theology, anthropology of religion, and Biblical cosmology. Likewise, legendary characters such as vampires, poltergeists and leprechauns would be considered supernatural.
Views on the supernatural
Speculative views on the "supernatural" include that it may
| Distinct from nature
|| Some events occur according to natural laws, and others occur according to a separate set of principles external to nature. For example God (in most definitions) is considered to be the ultimate creator of the universe and the natural laws. Those who believe in Angels and Spirits generally assert that they are super-natural entities. Some religious people also believe that all things which humans see as natural only act the same way consistently because God wills it so, and that natural laws are an extension of divine will. |
| A higher nature
|| Others assert that God, miracles, or other putative supernatural events are real, verifiable, and part of the laws of nature that we do not yet understand. |
| A human coping mechanism
|| Others believe that all events have natural and only natural causes. They believe that human beings ascribe supernatural attributes to purely natural events (eg. Lightning, Rainbows, Floods, the Origin of Life). |
|| Many people have sought to use both magic and science in hopes of empowering humanity for improvement and to achieve a clearer picture of humanity's place in the cosmos. In some of the earliest Christian art (from the 3rd century) Jesus Christ is portrayed as a bare-faced youth holding a wand as a symbol of power (See: Images of Jesus). There may be a persistent link between supernaturalism, the paranormal, and the desire for immortality. |
| A word for unexplained events
|| Before the scientific method was used, everything was believed to have a supernatural cause. "Supernatural" today is in this sense merely used as an inspiration for more scientific knowledge tomorrow, through observation and analysis. |
|Another part of a larger nature
|| This is a view largely held by monists and process theorists. According to this view, the "supernatural" is just a term for parts of nature that modern science and philosophy do not yet properly understand, similar to how sound and lightning used to be mysterious forces to science. Materialist monists believe that the "supernatural" consists of things in the physical universe not yet understood by modern science, while idealist monists reject the concept of "supernatural" on the grounds that they believe "nature" is the non-material. Neutral monists maintain that "nature" and "supernature" are artificial categories as they believe that the material and non-material are both either equally real and simultaneously existent, or illusions that stem from the human mind's interpretation of reality. |
Arguments in favor of a supernatural reality
Many proponents believe that the past, present and future complexities and mysteries of the universe
cannot be explained by naturalistic explanations alone and argue that it is reasonable to assume that a nonnatural entity or entities resolve the unexplained. By its own definition, science
today is incapable of examining or testing for the existence
of things which are untestable because concerns itself with what can be measured. Proponents of supernaturalism claim that their belief system is more flexible, which allows them more diversity in terms of intuition and epistemology
. William Dembski
writes: "For the theist attempting to understand nature, God as creator is fundamental, the creation is derivative, and nature as the physical part of creation is still further downstream".
Arguments against a supernatural reality
Many thinkers suggest that if a phenomenon is by definition outside of the realm of science, it therefore cannot be experienced and has by definition no impact on our lives.
- Our knowledge of the world is continuously increasing. Some occurrences, once assumed supernatural, can today be explained by scientific theories.
- Many suggested supernatural phenomena vanish when they are examined closely. There have been, for example, various studies on astrology, most of them with negative results(a single positive result cannot outweigh many negative ones, as it can be expected by mere chance).
- Supernaturality may be a remnant of a static world view. It comes from a time when the growth of human knowledge was appreciably slower than at present. As another example, the Aristotelian Mechanics were considered valid for more than a thousand years.
- Some naturalists argue that the process of observing an event contradicts the definition of "supernatural", therefore, no event that can be observed can actually be described as supernatural. This leads to the conclusion that if there were supernatural events and beings, we would not be able to know about them.
- A majority of supernaturalists of any given supernatural religion only believe in a very narrow subset of all supernatural explanations of reality when all the supernatural beliefs of all supernatural religions, past and present, are taken together. The vast majority of Christians today do not think that we are reincarnated, nor do the vast majority of today’s Hindus think that everyone permanently goes to heaven or hell when they die. This differentiates a Hindu from a Christian. Since for both groups in this example the reasons for their particular choices do not differ in any discernible way, to then make claims about the "truth" of their own beliefs and the "untruth" of the opposing beliefs would not be fair and honest. Thus some say either accept all religious claims for the same reasons or reject all religious claims for the same reasons.
- Humans are capable of having delusions that cannot be recognized.
Naturalization vs. supernaturalization
Some people believe that supernatural events occur, while others do not.
The neologism naturalize
, meaning "to make natural", is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of denying any supernatural significance to events which another presumes to be supernatural. This perceived process may also be referred to as reductionism
. It rests on the believer's presumption that supernatural events can and do occur; thus, their description as "natural" by the skeptic is seen as a result of a process of deliberate or unconscious denial of any supernatural significance, thus, "naturalization." (This meaning of the word should not be confused with naturalization
, the process of voluntarily acquiring citizenship at some time after birth. Also, plants, for example many wildflowers and bulbs including lilies, will "naturalize"; that is spread and develop beds without extra cultivation.)
The neologism supernaturalize
, meaning "to make supernatural", is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of ascribing supernatural causes to events which someone else presumes to be natural. This perceived process may also be referred to as mythification
. It rests on the presumption
of the skeptic that supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur; thus, their description by the believer as supernatural is seen as the result of a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, thus, "supernaturalization". Supernaturalization can also mean the process by which stories and historical accounts are altered to describe supernatural elements.
The subjective nature of the issue
Two people may come to completely different conclusions based on identical evidence. One may automatically "screen out" possible explanations simply because they conflict with one's paradigm
, or world view, and create cognitive dissonance. There can also be many other motivations, conscious or unconscious, for this selective awareness. For example, to make oneself "look good" to others and thus avoid isolation, or perhaps the desire to imitate personal heroes. Generally we criticize and question the picture of reality held by others; it is rare to question one's own, rarer still to admit our own is distorted.
Competing explanations and criteria of preference
For some people it is not a matter of supernatural events versus natural events; they are all events, but there may be many competing explanations. The question then becomes what criteria
shall one use to prefer one explanation over another, and one must be careful not to confuse the phenomenon with the explanation. We may agree that a bush has burst into flames; where we may differ is in the explanation for the cause of that event. The supernaturalist in that instance prefers the supernatural explanation based on one or more criteria of preference. It could be because the explanation includes constructs such as an immortal soul and other purported phenomena, such as the soul rising to a place of great joy upon being released at death, and they find this very attractive. The naturalist may prefer the natural explanation because such explanations are required to have predictive power, and being able to predict in a reliable way what will happen when a certain set of circumstances is present is something they find attractive. There are many people that are comfortable with accepting both explanations to satisfy several preferences; a supernatural explanation that provides comfort from the thought of death, and a natural explanation because of its utility in reliably controlling fire. For example, a Christian may accept the theories of Evolution and the Big Bang, but still explain reality as a deliberate creation of their god. One person may be a naturalist because they are driven by a preference for predictability, rather than comfort; another person may be a supernaturalist because they prefer an explanation that makes them feel better about their eventual death, rather than how useful it is in explaining actual reality.
Alleged instances of supernaturalization
Believers respond to the many instances of supernaturalization by arguing that the fact that supernaturalization often occurs does not refute the existence of the supernatural any more than the fact that scientists often make errors refutes the existence of the natural universe; and that the supernatural by its very nature cannot be explored through science, and must therefore be explored through different means, such as spirituality. Nonbelievers counter that the two forms of explanation cannot be equated, because erroneous naturalistic claims, such as those made for the existence of phlogiston or N-rays, are routinely and often rapidly corrected by reference to nature, while erroneous supernaturalistic claims such as the above are impossible to correct by reference to supernature or by any other widely accepted objective means.
Supernatural in fiction
The supernatural is also a topic in various fictional
genres, especially horror fiction
and fantasy fiction
- Dualism, the view that the mental and the physical have a fundamentally different nature as an answer to the mind-body problem.
- Idealism, any theory positing the primacy of spirit, mind, or language over matter. It includes claiming that thought has some crucial role in making the world the way it is.
- Magical thinking, may include such ideas as the ability of the mind to affect the physical world.
- Monism, the view that the mental and physical are ultimately part of the same super-reality which both the physical and non-physical world(s) compose. The view that differing realities are not the end-all-be-all in themselves. Monism can involve material monism, the view that only the physical is real and all else are manifestations of the physical; idealist monism which holds that only the mental is real and all else are manifestations of the mental; or neutral monism.
- Vitalism, the doctrine that life cannot be explained solely by mechanism. Often, the nonmaterial element is referred to as the soul, the "vital spark", or some kind of spiritual energy.
- God of the gaps, events originally ascribed to a supernatural cause move into the natural realm when explained by science.
- Ex nihilo
- Naturalism, which rejects the validity of explanations or theories making use of entities inaccessible to natural science.
- Materialism, the view that the only thing that can truly be said to 'exist' is physical matter and energy; that fundamentally, all things are made up of 'material'. Materialism is typically contrasted with dualism, idealism, and vitalism.
- The scientific method, a meticulous means of building a supportable, evidenced understanding of our natural world. The ability to repeat an experiment and obtain the same observed results is held in high regard.
- Scientism, a worldview that rejects the supernatural and the non-physical on the grounds that science is inherently materialistic; rejects anything which cannot be immediately scientifically tested or verified or not currently accepted by the scientific mainstream. Sometimes used in the pejorative.