Science — Supernatural Causation: It’s Not Even Wrong

Previously, I’ve written about the approach of science to supernatural claims & supernatural explanations, two entirely different things, and hopefully, that’s come across in my writing.

Supernatural claims are certainly acceptable, and many like the Shroud of Turin, weeping statues, and alleged hauntings can be looked into scientifically — and have been — but those who’ve looked successfully into these matters have never resorted to supernatural causes to explain them, nor should they have.

It is simply incorrect to say that mainstream researchers have never looked into such claims. They have and often still do, time, interest, and funding permitting, but have always found conventional explanations for them.

The reason is inherent in the methods of science: Supernatural explanations are not admissible because being by definition outside of all natural laws and so not bound by them, there are no theoretical constraints upon any supernatural agent that would allow supposing such causation to be scientifically useful.

Any hypothetical supernatural beings could thus do whatever they wanted, without limit (again, being unrestricted by any natural laws) and any effect they could produce would be compatible with all states of affairs we could possibly imagine, so there would be no meaningful way to test that — such explanations are by their very nature outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

This rejection of supernatural causation is not due to any ‘prejudice’ by scientists against it, it is simply because science’s methods are limited to seeking natural causes for natural effects, because these are the only ones that it can possibly do anything with, the only ones capable of being formulated to be usefully answered by its empirical methods.

You cannot have it both ways…Both claiming scientific evidence for your position and retreating behind the defense of saying that it is outside of science when it suits you.

In the past, I’ve suggested that science can only consider something paranormal only after exhaustively looking into every conceivable natural explanation — the problem is that I’m wrong to say that — science can never give up and call anything supernatural or paranormal, if by either we mean anything outside the laws of science. To do so would be to commit two common fallacies — an argument from ignorance and simultaneously confusing the currently unexplained with the forever unexplainable — common errors made by believers in the paranormal.

This is not acceptable. Since human beings are not omniscient, there are almost sure to be causes of which we are unaware and did not control for in an experiment or observation. No one with a finite amount of time on their hands can possibly think of all of them, only those which are known of, can be thought of, and accounted for at the time.

There are potentially a greater number of possible natural explanations for any currently unexplained phenomena than we can be aware of at once, and it is not scientifically permissible to throw up one’s hands in despair and declare something a miracle. This is because our knowledge of possible natural causes is sadly far from complete, even collectively, and especially as individuals, and there are sure to be those of which we are still ignorant.

You can never be absolutely certain that there is no possible natural way to explain something — it may just take you longer, perhaps decades, to figure it out. But every question science has fully examined so far originally started out as an anomaly, one which eventually yielded an answer through investigation, yielding deeper, more subtle mysteries that we are looking into even as I type this into my browser.

As long as science remains a viable means of asking questions and gaining answers in its interrogation of reality, I’ve no reason to suppose that it will ever call it quits and stop looking just because a problem seems currently insoluble.

That would be intellectual cowardice of the worst sort.

Maybe there will be anomalies that take centuries to answer, perhaps even longer, but science has only been around for a few hundred years, and is young as a human enterprise with much room to grow…

The fact that science doesn’t know everything in the here and now is a strength, not a weakness, for it means that there will always be new discoveries to make, always new findings to uncover, new refinements to current ideas, and that’s something that promoters of supernaturalism, with their need for metaphysical certitude sans empirical knowledge, can never accept.

Reference —

Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills, by Steven Novella M.D. the Teaching Company, 2012

4 thoughts on “Science — Supernatural Causation: It’s Not Even Wrong

  1. Good post, well argued.

    I have two supplementary points to make. First, the terms ‘supernatural’ and ‘paranormal’. Really do need to go away. They’re founded on notions that (in my opinion) are laughably at odds with our working understanding of reality. Nothing exists in contradiction to nature.

    A second, related point is that science can only come to grips with that which is observable and therefore measurable. There are parts of reality which are out of bounds for science. some of them permanently (think sub-Planck length and time). While we cannot be certain that such limits are absolute and for all time, it may be the case.


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