Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Natural and Supernatural

Here is a mind-bendingly illuminating quote from Michael Shermer's new book about the difference between the natural and supernatural, science and theology. I'll piggyback a few thoughts afterwords:

"Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural. In fact, there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain by natural causes. Invoking such words as supernatural and paranormal just provides a linguistic placeholder until we find natural and normal causes, or we do not find them and discontinue the search out of lack of interest. This is what usually happens in science. Mysteries once thought to be supernatural or paranormal happenings - such as astronomical or meteorological events - are incorporated into science once their causes are understood. . .

"When theists, creationists, and intelligent design theorists invoke miracles and acts of creation ex nihilo, that is the end of the search for them, whereas for scientists the identification of such mysteries is only the beginning. Science picks up where theology leaves off. . .

"To our Bronze Age ancestors who created the great monotheistic religions, the ability to create the world and life was godlike. Once we know the technology of creation, however, the supernatural becomes the natural. Thus my gambit: the only God that science could discover would be a natural being, an entity that exists in space and time and is constrained by the laws of nature. A supernatural God who exists outside of space and time is not knowable to science because he is not part of the natural world, and therefore science cannot know God.

Main points:

1. There is no supernatural. The "supernatural" or "paranormal" becomes natural when scientists learn how to describe something previously thought of as supernatural - in natural terms. Or in other words, there is a perfectly natural explanation for all phenomena. For things that currently escape scientists ability to fully describe by natural means (i.e. What happened before the Big Bang? What caused the Big Bang?  How does human consciousness work?) a supernatural explanation is not an explanation at all.  It just pushes the mystery back one more step to God.

Scientists are working on explaining these, and other, mysterious phenomena. They have a great track record of explaining things that were once thought to be due to magic, demons, ghosts, and God. While science cannot (and does not) explain everything, and occasionally gets it wrong (until it corrects itself), it still remains "the best tool ever devised for explaining how the world works."  Is there any doubt that scientists' great track record will continue, and that they will simultaneously chip away at the pseudo-explanations offered by religionists and believers of paranormal phenomena?

2. The only God that science can ever understand is a natural God; the same sort of God Mormons believe in; an evolved super intelligent ET.  If God exists beyond nature, outside the Universe, and outside of space and time (as many theists have placed him so that he cannot be falsified), then there is no way that natural beings like us, who do occupy space and time in this universe, can understand him or interact with him.


Many philosophers and scientists argue that in an age where our technological abilities expand exponentially, that in the not-too-distant future, we Homo sapiens will have the technology to create new universes seeded with stars and planets and even life.  When you consider what we humans have done in the last 100 years with our technology, just imagine what an alien super species, who has evolved 50 million years beyond us, would be capable of doing with theirs.

However, if God is nothing more than a super intelligent ET designer, an evolved human with godlike abilities who created the world by natural means, then one big question comes to mind:

Why should we worship him if he is just a natural being? Indeed, why would self adulation, or worship of oneself  (a fairly base human quality that we despise in others) be important to him? Why does he even care what we think about him? And why would he device silly religious rituals that allow us to remain in his good graces?

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