Friday, July 07, 2006

Is there a Supernatural Explanation?

I can understand naturalism and its process of explanation. However, many people are unhappy with it and seek supernatural explanations of events. But what is a supernatural explanation? When should one believe in one? Does it really explain anything?

Consider the case of a person with late-stage cancer. He is prayed over and then he recovers and his cancer goes into remission. Is that a supernatural or a natural healing? What does supernatural healing mean?

First one could define natural healing. This could be the body's immune system managing to isolate and kill the cancer cells, or a medical procedure where an instrument is used to remove the tumor or some other physically describable process. A supernatural healing, by definition, cannot be only this. During some stage of the healing there must be something that happens that does not follow the normal laws of physics. At some instant some molecules realign in a way that they never could under normal conditions requiring a force beyond anything in the known universe. For this reason we call it supernatural.

While many people believe in supernatural explanations, I presume most would agree that almost all events (>99.999%) are natural. That is, given an event, our presumption should be that it is natural unless there is strong reason to suspect it is not. So what is a good reason to suspect a supernatural explanation? Back to the late-state cancer example. Most people with late-stage cancer die because of it. Occasionally some people's bodies unexpectedly manage to recover for some natural cause like the immune system winning. Now many people with late stage cancer are earnestly prayed for, but despite this most of them die (otherwise it wouldn't be such a deadly killer). Sometimes someone with late stage cancer is prayed for and then he recovers. Being prayed for and then being healed is a very unlikely event and so one might say it is evidence of a supernatural healing. But this ignores all the negative cases of people being prayed for and not being healed. If there are occasional unexpected natural recoveries, then one would expect that sometimes these would occur after someone is prayed for, especially if they are prayed for for a long time. So positive answers to prayers aren't good reason to believe in supernatural explanations, if there are many negative answers to prayers that go unnoticed.

Perhaps evidence for the supernatural is when an individual has great healing power. If so then we ought to take Benny Hinn seriously; at least his followers would point to his many great healing miracles (see his web page for examples). Others would be more sceptical suspecting that there are many people who aren't healed and wonder if the healings don't have natural explanations despite the claims. Well, then one could point to Jesus; he surely had many great miracles. But here we only have the testimony of his followers and they are unlikely to record failed miracle attempts, and in the one case where this is hinted at, (Mark 6:5-6 "He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith."), the explanation given was lack of faith. That is a convenient explanation for any healer when he fails to heal. Unfortunately we don't have any measure for what percent of people were healed or how effective the healings were. Without those negative data we can't declare the healings that worked as evidence for the supernatural.

Then what about miracles that can't have natural explanations. Many religions have examples of these. But the high likelihood of events having natural explanations should cause one to have great suspicion of these events and consider possible natural explanations like the stories were embelished by the followers or recorders. I think David Hume's argument is that the latter is much more probable than the events actually happening as told.

Nevertheless, say there is a well established event that can't have a natural cause and so we say its cause was supernatural. What are we gaining by calling it supernatural? Aren't we simply saying that we can't understand how the event could have happened given our model of the natural universe? Of course people like to anthropomorphize the spiritual world; fill it with human-like demons and angels, gods and goddesses, or a human-like God. People preach all kinds of things about the supernatural, but isn't this far more likely to be wild speculation than true knowledge. How could anyone know what the supernatural actually contains? Perhaps he feels it, senses it, has a vision of it; in my opinion all ways of "knowing" that are very suseptible to self delusion and fulfilling what one wants to believe. No matter what someone's character, it seems pretty easy to be deluded about something one does not have a direct method of sensing. So I think we are stuck being ignorant about the supernatural.

Here are my conclusions. First almost all events are natural, and so this should be our default assumption unless there are strong reasons to believe otherwise. But it is very hard specify reasons to believe something is supernatural. An event being improbable is insufficient to rule out natural explanations, as many natural events are improbable. Now even if one can show an event is supernatural, all that one is saying is that one cannot understand the event in terms of natural causes, and this is not really an explanation.


  1. Firstly, it might be more historically acurate to say that some people were unhappy with the supernatural explanations, and therefore sought natural ones, but this is mostly irrelevent to the questions at hand.

    Nevertheless, I am beginning to wonder if both supernatural worldviews and naturalist ones suffer from the same problem in some way or another. Because their first principles are so fundamental, every piece of data is colored by the resulting beliefs that come from the fundamental worldview. It seems that your post has created a system for which supposed evidence for the supernatural will always be rejected (given the sort of Baysian prior of 99.999%*), and the supernaturalists have admitedly done likewise. In some ways it would be nice to think more clearly about this free from either the supernatural or the natural assumption, but I am not sure if this is possible.

    While I am reluctant to admit it, as it will surely put in the camp of the ignorant, the reason that I reject Benny Hinn, is not because he performs miracles, but because his lifestyle causes me to question his character. I remain agnostic with respect to whether some have been miraculously healed through his ministry.

    Finally, I would destinguish between the physical explanations that naturalism (of the not necessarily ontological sort) can give us for things like the spontaneous death of cancer cells, and the more metaphysical ones that a supernatural worldview offers to those that espouse it.

    Supernatural worldviews do not offer answers to all of the questions--like why do some people get healed while others don't. But they do offer some answers, that I don't think naturalism (of the ontological sort) can provide in a sufficiently satisfying form. -PH

    * I think there is a problem with Baysian reasoning when applied to this sort of phenominon, roughly along the lines of what S has mentioned before. Given a different set of assumptions, the Baysian probabilities could be totally rewritten, leading to very illogical results.

  2. PH:

    Ah, but the question is: on what basis are you going to choose what to believe? It sounds like you are saying your beliefs have to be satisfying in some sort of personal way... I'm not sure what though.

    Then the question is: what if the hard truth of the world is not actually nice or satisfying in this way?

    Instead of a dichotomy between naturalism and supernaturalism, how about choosing between:
    (1) Physical particles/things are governed by universal laws or patterns, versus:
    (2) Physical particles/things are governed by external entities that can move/perturb them however they like.

    Of course one cannot prove either of these. But assuming the first is what enables science to progress, and us to make all kinds of predictions about the world. The latter allows for a more personal universe but also a completely unpredictable one unless a layer of rules are built up to govern it. Where to get these rules is a big difficulty, however.


  3. Your argument implies that science cannot progress without an ontological naturalist worldview. Even Einstein did not find this neccessary though, as evidenced by the famous quote "I seek to know God's thoughts..." The earliest enlightenment scientists all had at least thesitic worldviews.

    I do not think that a worldview something like: "The universe was created with an order that we can observe, and is in some way or another sustained by forces or a force that are/is in someway or another seperate from the universe" is incompatible with the work of science.

    As to looking for something that is "satisfying," I don't think this is such a moral flaw on my part. We are all looking for explanations that work by some criterion or another. Elegant, useful, explanatory, good, etc. are all criteria that we use to evaluate a theory. Why cannot I apply similar criteria to theories on the supernatural?

  4. PH:

    I think Einstein had a pretty deistic view of God. I suspect if he found an event that contradicted his theory he would assume his theory was wrong, not that it might be fluke event caused by God in a universe that otherwise followed his theory. With this assumption, belief God is not relevant to his scientific work.

    I agree with your second paragraph. In part I think it is because it does not seem to have any practical implications on the universe, although it depends on what exactly "the universe [being] sustained" means.

    I wasn't saying you're wrong to look for a satisfying worldview. I agree people seek elegant explanations, and it is possible to be somethat more specific in indescribing what elegant means (perhaps somthing like fewest parameters). One could even say that is a satisfying explanation. But I wanted to know what you mean by satisfying -- what makes a worldview satisfying? Then is there any way to show that a satisfying theory/worldview is more likely to be true than a non-satisfying one?


  5. I am still working out what I mean by satisfying, but there are several aspects to it. I think I somewhat fall in line with S in believing in the world of the mind/soul in some way or another. Within that world, I think there are ideas that "ring true" with humans in some deep internal way. I guess I fall in line with Blaise Pascal who said, "the heart has reasons of which reason knows not." I can't explain the mechanics of this type of understanding, but not being able to explain the mechanism of something does not mean that it does not exist. Perhaps our belief that our own thoughts are at least somewhat valid falls in this category of an idea that just "rings true."

    I find that the "world of the soul" explanation has a lot of explanatory power with respect to dreams, near death experiences, generally accepted extreme evil as we find in Nazi Germany, the slave trade in N. America, or school shootings, the value and power of art in society, and my own experiences that do not seem to have natural exaplanations. I know that naturalist explanations exist for all of the above, but they do not "ring true" to me.


  6. PH:

    Then maybe we can agree that what rings true to each of us is different? And hence what we each find satisfying is different?


  7. DM

    Scientist may think that they can "explain" miracles but they really can't because if they understood how an "spontaneous remission" of cancer takes place, they would KNOW how to make it happen over & over again. But the truth is that they can't! They cannot replicate the miraculous event with the use of natural methods.

    Is there a supernatural power that exceeds their "natural" explanations and escapes our human control? The answer is YES.

    Why not everyone gets cured? A miracle is God's prerogative, not ours. It is an unmerited gift. It is beyond our control and beyond our human understanding. THAT'S WHY.

  8. Anon:

    There are many things we don't understand about the physical and biological worlds. But the fact that we don't understand them does not imply that they must be supernatural.

    Attributing things we don't understand to the working of God is called "God of the gaps." It's problem is that as science progresses we understand more and more, and that God keeps getting smaller and more distant.

    Eventually (perhaps 25, 50 or 100 years) we are going to fully understand how cancer works and explain why some cases go into remission. At that point God's healing miracles won't be miracles anymore.


  9. PH:

    I like your comments because it mirrors how I feel.

    I think you might like "Why can't we be good?" by Jacob Needleman. I'm still in the beginning stages of the book, but the chapter I read last night had something to say about how we understand the "real" universe with our "real" self (which is not necessarily the physical ie natural one).