While I’ve touched on this subject briefly before, I think it stands a better examination. The process of writing some of these posts has led to the contemplation of some of our cultural assumptions, and what’s become an interesting lesson from this is how useful it might be to contemplate words and ideas that we’ve taken for granted; in this case, it’s the word, “supernatural.”
The word tends to get used in different ways, but overall, it basically refers to something not beholden to the laws of nature, which we can probably take to mean the laws of physics. For example, we can see the supernatural in… um… well, nothing, really. In fact, some people tend to treat supernatural as indicating something that we can never find an example of, never witness, demonstrate, test, or measure. The problem with this usage is that it can be safely ignored, since it can never have any effect on us whatsoever and is thus useless. But no, wait, that’s not what was meant – miracles are supernatural in origin! You know, miracles such as strange coincidences or surviving extremely low odds, which really only demonstrates how badly people understand probability.
Taking a look at the source, however, we find that the word appeared not, as we might have expected, at about the same time as scriptural references to what we routinely consider supernatural, such as deities and demons and so on, but in the early 1500s. Curiously, this is when the period that we call the scientific revolution began, where the process of testing assumptions and demonstrating ‘natural’ laws gained great acceptance and proved to be more useful than appealing to priests. It is also the time when Europeans began to have significant contact with other cultures and found that there were a lot more origin stories than their own. Before this time, it was simply assumed that the judeo-christian scriptures were accurate portrayals of past history – there was nothing to be supernatural since everything was god’s plan. Even well before this period, when there were beliefs in multiple gods among the cultures that sprang from the Middle East, everything was still ‘created,’ even though the debate raged over which deity actually received credit. For the most part, people heard stories of distant lands but had direct experience only with their own villages, so the lack of miraculous occurrences meant little – they were probably taking place the next town over. Even today, with our instantaneous communications and abilities to check stories, we still have thousands of false claims bouncing around (mostly about Barack Obama’s parentage and policies) – it’s fatuous to think that no such stories were promoted centuries ago, and in fact, the folklore abounds with religious miracles and direct encounters with demons.
Also bear in mind that the primary sources of authority up until this time, and for some period afterwards, were the priestly classes. If anyone wanted to know why, they asked their religious leaders, and generally got answers that reinforced the church’s authority. Additionally, the structure of scientific thought was based on the Aristotelian philosophical idea that a premise was true if the reasoning supported it, a concept that was adapted to theology in such things as the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments, and still serves as theological support today. Some things yet remained a mystery; the peculiar motion of the planets, the unwarranted retribution of plagues, and the nature of evil were handwaved away as being above our station. But with the advent of empirical testing and observation, the nature of epistemology – how knowledge was obtained – changed significantly, as this new structure began to provide answers where nothing else had. Lots of them. And it has provided the basis of all scientific investigation ever since.
But as simple applications of mathematics and experimentation demonstrated that there was no ceiling over us and the earth was not unmoving in the center of things, as simple physical laws could be relied upon and even calculated to great accuracy, it was required to have a way of distinguishing all of this from the firmly held idea that god was calling the shots. The mass of cultural stories about the creation of the world and humankind, about the realms where angels lived and demons tormented, needed some way of holding sway in a world increasingly uncooperative in supporting them. In this time period arose the concept of ‘natural’ laws and ‘supernatural’ activity, which rescued the ancient cultural concepts of creation and an active deity from the necessity of demonstrating why we should believe in any such thing without some nice solid evidence. People don’t abandon their beliefs easily – it would mean admitting they’ve been wrong for a long time – and even though the concept of ‘supernatural’ was entirely new, it served to explain how scripture could be true without needing a damn thing to prove or support it.
Now, several centuries later, it is assumed to have been there all along, and is largely treated as a philosophical concept that was all hashed out long ago – no need to reinvent the wheel by examining how it appeared. Yet as indicated above, it is wielded in a wildly disparate manner to deny the idea that empiricism – knowledge based on firm, repeatable evidence – has been the only thing that has ever produced any results. Supernaturality remains embedded in our culture as a counterpoint to the basic, testable, dependable physical laws and properties that we use constantly, implying that every last thing that we do, from using a cell phone to landing rovers on Mars, is but one side of a two-sided reality, the other of which might be capable of anything; we’re just not permitted to know of it. And of course, this vast incorporeal realm is not only intelligent and purposeful, but kindly inclined towards us as well. The very existence of the word “supernatural,” and the implications therein, causes people to ignore the fact that they’re promoting the stories from a large number of bronze-age chroniclers who thought the whole world could be flooded and a tower could reach heaven.
Even more disturbing is how few people are willing to dismiss the concept as a pointless joke, and instead engage in discussions on how the complete lack of either evidence or effect should be considered ‘supernatural,’ rather than simply nonexistent. Those who forward the idea that the very age of the scriptural stories is reason enough to promote them as historical/factual tend to ignore the very same trait in every other creation account from every other culture worldwide. Such a comparison is exactly the kind of intellectual rigor that empiricism requires, and the reason why should be painfully obvious – if age was all that was necessary to establish scripture as factual, then we should be praying to anu or ra. Even if we desired to retain the Aristotelian method of rendering a sound premise without the need of supporting evidence, supernaturality fails to survive for the very reasons mentioned above, as well as for its relatively recent provenance. A specialized state of existence should certainly have been both evident and enumerated within the scripture, rather than having to be created out of thin air (a ha ha) when careful examination of our world and universe rendered so much of scripture grossly mistaken.
I can’t help but think that treating the word “supernatural” as decrepit as the idea of the River Lethe would help raise the bar on philosophical and theological discussions, since any such undertakings should remain based upon sound premises from the start. Rendering a formless plane of existence to salvage the inaccuracies of ancient writings is a child’s game, akin to the blobby naughty ghosts of the Family Circus, and just as inane.