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Supernaturalism

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Supernaturalism is the belief that there are beings, forces, and phenomena such as God, angels or miracles which interact with the physical universe in remarkable and unique ways.[1] Supernaturalism is a fundamental premise of theism. Theists by definition hold to a supernaturalistic worldview which stands in contrast to the atheistic premise of naturalism, which denies the existence of any supernatural phenomena.

The word supernatural comes from the Latin word super meaning "above" + nature. It should however, be noted that although some supernatural phenomena may not be perceived by natural or empirical senses, a great many supernatural events have been witnessed in biblical and modern times. Numerous events in Earth's history require a supernaturalistic belief before they can be correctly understood or interpreted.

Contents

Science and the Supernatural

Science can indeed acknowledge the supernatural but we must first define our terms.

Science

By definition, science involves the study of nature by the scientific method and the construction of falsifiable theories about the universe. Both creationists and evolutionists agree on this. It is with the definition of supernatural that things become somewhat problematic. If indeed the supernatural is, "outside the natural world" or "attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces," then science can do very little to study it. For how can science, as the study of nature, study what is outside of nature? Evolutionists make this argument ad nauseum.

Science according to Wiktionary is as follows;

The act and embodiment of performing the Scientific method in order to discover empirically proven truth.

The act and embodiment of constructing falsifiable theories which are not subsequently falsified. [1]

There is a problem with defining the supernatural as, "outside the natural world" or "violating the laws of nature." And that is what do we mean by the laws of nature? If by the laws of nature we mean how we think things work then supernatural events occur around us all the time.

The Mpemba effect [2] for example is the demonstrable fact that hot water freezes more quickly than cold water. This doesn't make sense to us. It violates the laws of nature as we know them, yet it still happens and fully natural, we just don't understand it. Why then, in our ignorance would we define the laws of nature as how we think things work? Nature is bigger than us. If we tag all events that we don't understand as supernatural and don't study them because they violate the laws of nature science will cease progress entirely. Obviously, this definition of "the laws of nature" is a failed one.

We could on the other hand, define the laws of nature as how things actually work. Then we have a different question. Because if nature is how things actually work, then there is no such thing as a supernatural phenomenon. Things either happen or they don't happen.

  • If Jesus was born of a virgin, it was natural, because it happened. If he wasn't, then the event wasn't "supernatural," it was a false story.
  • If Moses parted the red sea, it was natural, because it happened. If he didn't, then the event wasn't "supernatural," it was a false story.
  • If Yahweh sent the flood, it was natural, because it happened. If He didn't, then the event wasn't "supernatural," it was a false story.

Supernatural

When we define nature as how things are, then the word supernatural loses its meaning. Things either happen or they do not. If things happen they are natural and science should study them. If they do not happen they are not supernatural, they are simply false and science should prove them false.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, released in 2000 the word supernatural means;

Of or relating to existence outside the natural world.

Attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces.

Of or relating to a deity.

Of or relating to the immediate exercise of divine power; miraculous.

Of or relating to the miraculous. [3]

It should be noted that materialistic scientists today do not define nature as how things work. They define it as how we think things work. If you don't believe that God exists and does things, then you'll naturally conclude it's unscientific to claim that God did one thing or another. But the premise that God doesn't exist and doesn't do anything is not a scientific position, but a philosophical position. Essentially science cannot approach such a thing because it cannot be falsified, in other words since it cannot be observed it can't be experimented on or base predictions upon.

Thus, if we begin with the philosophical premise that it is possible that God exists and does things in the universe, then we conclude that supernaturalism is potentially scientific. If someone would rather use the philosophical premise that it is not possible that God exists and does things in the universe then we conclude that supernaturalism is not and could never be scientific. It is important to note that no matter which philosophical assumption one chooses to interpret the observable scientific evidence, either naturalism or supernaturalism, are equally unscientific.

To a supernaturalist, the point is not whether miracles are supernatural or not, but whether they occur at all. The point is God either does things or he does not. The point is, Yahweh either created Eve from a rib taken from Adam's side, or he did not. The point is, Jesus either rose from the dead on the third day, or he did not.

There is no room for supernatural here. There is room only for history. These events, amazing and unique as they were, either happened or they didn't. There is nothing supernatural about them. That is why science by any reasonable definition must permit creationism as a possibility. If Elohim created the Earth and life in six days, then it happened, it is history, and we should find a great deal of evidence consistent with this conclusion, and no evidence inconsistent with it. If he did not, of course, then Genesis is not supernatural, but false, and it is the duty of science to falsify it.

Inference of intelligence

The supernatural as violating laws of nature are dealt with below, but to the issue of whether science can allow for intelligent cause outside of nature itself rather than the blind process of naturalistic evolution, there are two issues involved here:

  • Can science explain phenomena with reference to intelligent agents?
  • Can science explain phenomena with reference to non-human intelligent agents like God?

The first question is rather easily dispatched. Science regularly infers intelligent action when studying phenomena, inferring that rock paintings, Stonehenge, and the pyramids were all created by intelligent agents. The scientists often do not know who did it, when they did it, or sometimes even how they did it. Nevertheless, scientists know that somebody made those things. There is nothing "unscientific" about such an inference.

The second question is more subtle. Can science attribute things to God? Let us consider some possibilities:

  • If God either does not exist or does not do anything in the universe, then it would of course be unscientific to attribute things to Him.
  • However, if God does exist and does do things in the universe, then it would be unscientific not to attribute the things to Him that He did, because it would be false.

It can be seen therefore that the assumption of the supernatural and ascribing things to God is "unscientific" is necessarily premised on the belief that either God does not exist or does not do anything in the universe. For if God does things, then it is not only possible to attribute actions to Him, but necessary because any other explanation will be false.

The premise that God either does not exist or does not do anything in the universe is an unfalsifiable premise with deeply religious implications that excludes a range of possible explanations without justification. Modern science has accepted this premise with no questions asked and defined it into their definition of science. Creationists on the other hand see no reason to believe that God could not have acted in the universe, we are essentially more so open-minded in this regard. They believe that because science's goal is to explain the universe, and that our attempts to explain the universe should not exclude what could be the truth.

The question is simply one of which explanation is best supported by the evidence. Creationists believe that creation is best supported by the evidence because:

  • Reputable historical accounts indicate specific acts by God;
  • The physical evidence is consistent with this accounts;
  • The only other possibility that has been presented, evolution, is demonstrably impossible and contradicted by the observable scientific evidence we have today within mutations, fossils and natural selection.

Objections from Naturalists

The first issue to address is whether the supernatural can be observed or not.

Observability

Clearly, the Bible is full of accounts of supernatural events and experiences. Most of these were visible in nature.

  • Adam and Eve spoke with God in the Garden of Eden, and explained what they had done;
  • God spoke to Noah, telling him to build a boat to save him from the flood; and then he saw the flood;
  • Abraham saw angels, spoke with angels, and then observed his wife become pregnant at such an old age that the prospect of pregnancy made her laugh;
  • Moses saw a burning bush, turned staffs into snakes, parted the red sea, followed a pillar of smoke and flame, and saw the face of God on Sinai;
  • Mary watched herself become pregnant when she was still a virgin;
  • Thomas saw Jesus after he rose again, and touched his hands.

It would appear, in the context of the Bible, that miracles are routinely seen, touched, and experienced. That is not to say that all supernatural beings or events are observable. But it does mean that the fact that some supernatural events are observable gives us reason to believe that supernatural beings exist, and the fact that we can't observe them is a consequence of our limitations, rather than any inadequacy on their part.

By analogy, humans were unable to see the far side of the moon for thousands of years; Nevertheless, we had reason to believe there was a far side to the moon, because we could see its near side and infer it had a far side. It was no surprise, then, that once our technology permitted us to travel there, we found that what had once been unobservable did, in fact, exist.

Results of prayer

Many scientists document or demonstrate that prayer (and faith) have the power to, beyond a placebo effect, aid in the recovery of an individual who is ailing. This is medically, scientifically documented in various studies and reports, and is an observable change brought on by belief (or appeal to) supernatural causes.

  • Research from Arizona State University concluded from 17 other observations and experiments that God (or "some other type of transcendent entity") answers prayer.[4]
  • Research in 2007 concluded that "Strong religious beliefs can protect stroke patients from emotional distress, perhaps aiding recovery ..." [5]
  • A 2001 study by Duke University showed that "Cardiac patients who received intercessory prayer in addition to coronary stenting appeared to have better clinical outcomes than those treated with standard stenting therapy alone." [6] Researchers suggested that "rigorous scientific methods to study the therapeutic value of prayer and other noetic interventions appears feasible and warrants larger-scale, more definitive investigations." (Later research seemingly contradicted these findings.)
  • A researcher with the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary found that prayer may help reduce stress and depression in the spouses of individuals coping with lung cancer. [7]
  • A 2001 study by Columbia University that was "carefully designed to eliminate bias" found that "prayer seems to almost double the success rate of in vitro fertilization procedures that lead to pregnancy". [8]
  • In 2000, a researcher with the University of Maryland Medical Center reviewed 23 studies on the healing effect of prayer and other belief-based methods. Dr. John Astin (who described himself as an open-minded skeptic) reported that "57 percent of the studies showed a positive impact on the patients, such as less pain or a faster than expected recovery time" and that the number was "highly significant."

The research does not all point one way. A 2006 study found that those confident that they were being prayed for experienced more adverse complications in their recovery process. [9] Yet even this would suggest that, positive or negative, prayerful appeal to the supernatural has observable results.

Can creation be scientific if it cannot be observed?

Creation is essentially the act of creating the natural world. There are two issues involved in this question.

  • First, are unobservable theories unscientific simply because they are unobservable?
  • Second, is the Genesis account of creation and the evidence for it unobservable?

The first argument fails, because it proves too much. If we say that "Nothing that cannot be observed can be scientific," then we define a wide variety of scientific theories as unscientific. The structure of subatomic particles, dark matter, dark energy, string theory, quantum mechanics, and general relativity are all unobservable in and of themselves, but are (to some degree at least) inferred from physical evidence. There is no naturalistic mechanism (abiogenesis included) that has been scientifically tested, or observed by science to actually create life from non-life as evolution predicts. Life by way of the supernatural, or by way of a naturalistic mechanism for evolution, are both equally untestable, and unobservable. Evolutionists would be better off finding, observing and duplicating in a lab a natural mechanism that creates life from non-life before blasting creationists because of our view.

Obviously, a lot of science is "unobservable", but it is still science. Why then should creationism be unscientific because it is unobservable, while other theories be scientific even though they are unobservable? Obviously it should not, unless one wishes to apply a double standard.

The second is not one of definition, but of evidence. Creationists think there is observable evidence from which to infer creation, but evolutionists do not. This is an issue that can only be resolved by substantive discourse; but substantive discourse is of course impossible when creationist papers are excluded from secular scientific journals simply for making creationist claims, and without addressing the evidence itself.

Other Objections

One supernatural explanation cannot be distinguished from another

This presupposes that all supernatural explanations are the same. It implies that invoking the supernatural is a blanket explanation. That supposition exposes another attribute of the objection itself: it is based on materialistic naturalism, which assumes a priori that no supernatural event can ever occur at all. While for a single event it may be impossible to distinguish between different supernatural explanations, the same thing is true of natural explanations. Distinguishing between different explanations, whether natural or supernatural, requires repeated events so that a pattern can be observed.

Supernatural explanations can produce predictions about future, similar events. Ghosts provide a good example, since there are two basic competing theories here:

  • Ghosts are spirits, in other words intelligent entities. This predicts different behavior at each sighting, which is consistent with their being individual personalities. This may include unique interactions with viewers.
  • Ghosts are psychic recordings of past events. This predicts repetition of the same behavior at different sightings This also predicts no interactions with viewers.

Each theory makes predictions about how ghosts will behave. In this case there are different sightings that match each theory such that studying a ghost's behavior can distinguish between two different supernatural explanations for ghosts.

It is impossible to generalize supernatural explanations

This is not true, as demonstrated by a simple look at the history, and the abundance of them. The above theories on ghosts are generalizations. There are difficulties in generalizing supernatural explanations but that does not mean that it is impossible. Difficulties in generalizing supernatural explanations can result from several causes:

  • Rarity of a supernatural event. Some supernatural events do not happen frequently enough (maybe only once) to make a generalization possible, but the same thing could occur with natural events, if similar events do not occur frequently enough to observe more than a few occurrences. The conquest of the lands of the ancient Greek Empire happened apparently only once, and may never be repeatable, but few would doubt that it happened, nor would anyone deny the validity of making historical generalizations.
  • Insufficient data on a supernatural event. If similar supernatural events are not adequately observed then generalizations may be impossible because of the lack of information. The same thing could occur with natural events that are not adequately observed.
  • It is difficult to generalize intelligent activity. Many supernatural events clearly involve intelligent entities and the behavior of intelligent entities would be hard, but not necessarily impossible, to generalize, particularly when dealing with more than one non-human intelligent entity. The is true of natural intelligent entities since, even among humans, some people will always behave outside any generalization. If one is dealing with more than one type of natural non-human intelligent entity, a generalization is impossible.

Some events once thought to be supernatural are now known to be natural

While this is true, it is a false analogy. Such events were deemed to be supernatural because nature was poorly understood by those who made such claims. However a scientific application of supernatural explanations concludes that natural process are inadequate, not because of lack of knowledge but because of the actual inability of chance and natural law to provide an adequate explanation. It is possible that a supernatural explanation could be replaced by a natural one if more data becomes available, but the reverse is also possible. In both cases, this is just one hypothesis replacing another; such is the nature of science.

Finding the natural causes of things, does not totally negate supernatural causes and purposes. For example some aspects of Quantum physics suggest that even natural causes have underlining supernatural causes. A supernatural explanation can only be postulated by eliminating all possible natural explanations. This depends on what one means by eliminating all possible natural explanations.

  • Sometimes it is claimed to include natural explanations not yet conceived of. This is absurd since it is impossible to eliminate a theory that does not yet exist.
  • It would have to be restricted to natural explanations that are consistent with the theoretical system under consideration, since any that is not consistent with it would be eliminated by definition.
  • Sometimes all possible natural explanations can be eliminated, by virtue of inconsistency with the laws of nature or being impossibly improbable.

Supernatural explanations hinder science

The same can be more accurately said of absolute naturalism since it eliminates a large class of phenomena and possible explanations. This objection presupposes that supernatural explanations are magical as if simply invoking the supernatural is an explanation; this is not the case. A proper supernatural explanation would explain how the event happened, but simply not be limited to the natural laws of our physical universe. In other words creationists are quick to point out that the supernatural is the cause for the existence of life and natural laws to sustain it. However simply because the supernatural has created life it doesn't mean that it cannot supercede the natural laws governing creation.

For example a scientist observes water running uphill, and he eliminates water pressure or some other normal mechanism such as a local mass anomaly. He then concludes that the water's behavior is consistent with spacetime's being bent to produce a gravitational field, but there is no mass to do the job. He might conclude, since this behavior violates natural law, that something from outside spacetime (supernatural by definition) is causing the spacetime bend. This would be no different in principle than inventing some supposed natural object that is equally unseen, such as dark matter or energy.

If a supernatural event is studied long enough or multiple supernatural events were studied, some details about the supernatural cause might be deduced, just as is done with unseen natural objects like subatomic particles. This objection equates the supernatural to superstition, but the two are not equivalent. It is one thing to use natural cases where they suffice but it is quite another to assume that they always do and must suffice.

Ancient people believed in miracles because they were superstitious

All argument against these plain facts [that miracles occur] is always in a circle. If I say, 'Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,' they answer, "But mediaevals were superstitious"; If I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 144)

Historic Supernatural Events

Numerous events in Earth's history require a supernaturalistic belief system before they can be correctly interpreted or understood.

Conclusion

There is nothing in the definition of science that precludes a supernatural hypothesis. In fact, many of the scientific fathers who created the very science still in use today relied upon God or a supernatural divine force that created first and sustained that creation with natural laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics to govern it. Furthermore a supernatural hypothesis can meet the qualifications of prediction and falsification. Supernatural hypotheses are not the same as superstition or magic, but are simply explanations that are from outside the universe and / or do not obey natural laws. Such explanations can but need not include God. The denial of the supernatural that is part of naturalism is a purely philosophical and essentially atheistic position. By excluding supernatural hypotheses from consideration, materialists eliminate out of hand a large body of possible explanations for past, present and future phenomena.

In origins and historical research, a total denial of the supernatural will cause grave error where supernatural events have indeed occurred; therefore supernatural explanations must be considered where appropriate. The fossil record itself is an prime example of how rigid naturalism has caused a fatal flaw in interpretation of Earth history, with far-reaching ramifications. Instead of interpreting the fossil record as being the result of a catastrophic global flood, a naturalist is forced to believe these deposits accumulated gradually over millions of years. This erroneous perspective of Earth's history is the principal evidence used to support the theory of evolution and ultimately promote the rise of atheism.

Although it might seem obvious that such an event had taken place whether you believe in supernaturalism or not, it is important to recognize the depth and breadth of the strata covering the Earth before a person can understand the reliance of this interpretation upon one presuppositional belief system or the other. Given the volumes of rock involved, it simply would not be possible for any land animal to survive a flood able to create the entire geologic column without supernatural intervention, and yet the world is filled with a plethora of fragile lifeforms. Either these organisms were spared from extinction through an act of supernatural intervention (i.e. the ark), or the layers of rock accumulated at a rate they could survive naturally.

References

  1. Supernaturalism by Merriam-Webster

Further reading

See Also

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