14 February 2010

On Supernatural

The article linked in the title is awesome.
A couple of centuries ago, people might have agreed that a 747 taking off was a supernatural event, had they chanced to see one departing from the local airport, but not today... If you don't know how airplanes fly, they are supernatural to you, but if you do know, or perhaps even if you just know that someone else knows, then airplanes are no longer supernatural. The working definition is as much about the observer's state of mind as it is about the allegedly supernatural phenomenon. By that definition, the supernatural clearly exists. It just changes all the time.

So let's get a bit more serious and look at the actual definition, which is something like: outside of nature, or not following the laws of nature. By that definition, or any reasonable definition, the concept of the supernatural is barely coherent. It is easy for someone to say they believe in the supernatural, but if looks at the concept a bit closer, it simply loses meaning. The supernatural does not exist, by its very definition.

For example, let's say that we actually see Harry Potter disarm his opponent by pointing his magic wand and shouting the magic word, "Expelliarmus." Such an event is indeed supernatural -- until it actually happens. Once it happens, it is, by definition, natural. It might be new and surprising, but that does not matter. At one time, flight was new and surprising. For centuries, people believed that the laws of nature simply did not allow bigs hunks of metal to fly through the air. But they were wrong. That does not mean that the laws of nature changed. It simply means we did not fully understand them before. And of course, we do not fully understand them now, either.

[several paragraphs later]

Some may be tempted to try to rescue the supernatural by changing the definition to something like: things that humans can never fully understand. But that definition is not terribly interesting, and it certainly does not capture what people really mean when they speak of the supernatural. Those who know the most about quantum mechanics say that they do not really understand it, and never will. Richard Feynman, for example, admitted that he did not really understand quantum mechanics. Yet no one claims that quantum mechanics is supernatural. It is just really hard to understand.... Moreover, there may be things even more complicated than quantum mechanics. Some humans, like Richard Feynman, can understand quantum mechanics in the sense that they can show it is true and describe what occurs in mathematical terms. Perhaps there are natural phenomenon even more complicated, such that our minds are simply incapable of comprehending. But that does not make those events supernatural. It just means our minds are limited, something we knew already.

Anything that actually happens is part of nature, whether or not we understand how it works. If something does not happen, then it is not part of nature. The supernatural cannot, by its very definition, exist. So, in the end, belief in the supernatural comes down to belief in gibberish. No one can really believe in the supernatural if they think about it in any meaningful way. [my emphasis]

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