The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science

by Paul Braterman



Paul1Science, it is often said, is restricted in principle to the search for natural causes. Is this a fundamental rule for doing science? Or merely a useful procedural guide, derived from experience? Is it even true? Or meaningful? Does it matter? These questions are addressed in an important series of papers in  20102012, and 2014, by Maarten Boudry at the University of Ghent and his colleagues. They conclude that it matters a great deal, that the alleged restriction does not in fact exist, and that appealing to such a principle in argument is harmful to the cause of science. I agree.

I will deal with the first four questions in reverse order. Can we make a meaningful distinction between the natural and the supernatural? I was initially inclined to say no. If something occurs, it’s part of nature. It is a law of nature that water doesn’t turn into wine, but if you believe that the miracle of the wedding feast of Cana really happened, then you need to modify the law to say “Water doesn’t turn into wine, except when Jesus tells it to.” Maarten persuaded me that this was not a helpful line to take. Like all attempts to define a problem out of existence, it is logically unassailable, but useless. It denies us access to the very distinction that we should be clarifying.

The question, however, is more difficult than it seems. After all, we do not know everything that there is to be known about nature. We readily apply the label “supernatural” to purported phenomena such as telekinesis or telepathy, in which mind is regarded as operating on matter or on other minds without material agency, but we do not have a satisfactory account of mind-matter relationships anyway. Other prime candidates for supernatural status, such as precognition and remote viewing, would if real involve transcending the usual space-time framework, but space and time are much less rigidly defined now than they seemed to be before Einstein. The limits of natural explanation have been extended in the past, by invoking action at a distance (gravity, then other forces), intrinsic randomness (quantum mechanics), and more recently particle entanglement (quantum mechanics again). Presumably they will be in the future, in ways yet undreamt of. So the fact that something cannot be explained by today’s science need not force us to invoke the supernatural. What would, then? Boudry and Taner Edis suggest a test for what they call unphysical causation, but it is highly technical, with their criterion based on demonstrated access to uncomputable numbers (I will not attempt to reproduce their argument). However, they suggest some examples. What, for instance, if Lourdes started producing undeniable miracles in large numbers, including the regrowth of amputated limbs, but only for devout Catholics? What if all organisms were found to contain an identical section of DNA, whose diffraction pattern spelt out the message “© Yahweh 4004 BC”? What, I might add, if we really did start receiving messages from the dead?

Searching for messages is not a new idea. There are cottage industries within both Christianity and Islam,  producing evidence that the authors of the Bible or the Qur’an are referring to scientific facts unknown by mere mortals when these books were first written. For instance, does the reference to the “circle of the Earth” in Isaiah 40:22 imply that the author knew that the Earth goes round the sun? Do the numerous biblical references to God stretching out the heavens show an awareness of the expanding universe? Mohammed is said to have “split the moon”; is this a reference to its formation by accretion? Few of us would find these examples convincing.

Paul2Or, to take a much more sophisticated (and lucrative) example, what of the “Bible code” claim[1] that computer searching of the Hebrew text according to certain counting rules reveals messages about post-biblical, including recent, history, placed there on purpose so that, when computers became available, we would be able to read these messages? The claim was taken seriously by enough people to put three successive volumes on the best-seller list. But that tells us nothing about its truth. This is testable, in at least two different ways, and fails both tests miserably.

Firstly, is the text special? Test: take some other, undoubtedly secular, text, apply the same methodology, and see what happens. Many people have done this with remarkable results. My favourite is an analysis, by the geophysicist Dave Thomas, of the Amazon website excerpt from the third book in the series, from which he unearthed the messages that the Bible Code was a “vain hoax” and “megalomania”. Well, that’s English, not Hebrew, but Hebrew should be even easier since it is written with consonants only.

Secondly, are the predictions correct? Take this example: Bible Code II predicted that Yasser Arafat would be shot by Hamas gunmen. In fact, he died of an infection, and Hamas had nothing to do with it. Again, the same book predicted Libya acquiring weapons of mass destruction; in fact, Libya renounced its plans in that direction, opening up a brief honeymoon between Gaddafi and the West. There were also predictions of an end-times nuclear war, and had any policy makers been paying attention to these (not inconceivable when millions of Americans await the Rapture) the consequences could have been serious indeed.

Why have I spent so much time on this silly example? Because it gives the answer to all but one of my original five questions. Despite the problem of definition, we would all agree that if the Bible Code claims had been correct, they would have been evidence of supernatural agency. So yes, the distinction (Question 4) between natural and supernatural is meaningful. More importantly, this example shows that we do in fact investigate supernaturalist claims using the methods of science (Question 3; science is not restricted to the search for natural causes; so the initial assertion is not true). It follows at once that when occasion demands we cheerfully violate the purported restriction on how we do science, which therefore cannot be a fundamental rule (Question 1).

Paul3It is only after the Bible Code claims have been convincingly shredded that we can decide that claims of this kind are not worth our time and trouble. It was only after exhaustive card-guessing experiments had failed to reveal any evidence for ESP (and after the published evidence for its reality was found to be faulty if not fraudulent) that people decided it was just not worth while continuing in that direction. It was only after spiritualists had repeatedly been exposed as fakes that scientists more or less stopped investigating them. For a while, even such distinguished scientists as Alfred Russel Wallace took their pretensions seriously. However, nowadays such investigations are undertaken more to unmask fraud and protect the public than in the hope of new discoveries. (In this endeavour, scientists have been joined by professional magicians, from Houdini to James “the amazing” Randi, illustrating to my mind the artificiality of separating off “science” from other kinds of factual enquiry.) Much the same, but with less emphasis on fraud, can be said about hunting for ghosts. In this century, there have been several studies of the effects of intercessory prayer on recovery from illness. No effect (or in one case, a small negative effect, tentatively attributed to the added stress of the situation), and a recommendation from Cochrane Reviews, which collate data from clinical trials, that no further work of this kind be undertaken. In each of these cases, the scientific search has been abandoned, not because of some overarching principle about the nature of science, but because plain experience showed it to be pointless. A priori rejection of the supernatural had nothing to do with these decisions, which were based purely on experience. Experience that would never have been attained if scientists really were debarred from submitting the supernatural to investigation.

Science, as P. J. Medawar pointed out in his devastating critique[2]  of Koestler’s Act of Creation, is an extremely practical activity, and it is commonplace for lines of enquiry to be abandoned because they were getting nowhere (I can confirm this from bitter experience, as a sometime experimental chemist). Thus, as Boudry and colleagues remind us, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris decided in 1775 to have nothing more to do with proposals to build a perpetual motion machine. This was many years ahead of the development of the laws of thermodynamics, which tell us that such a machine is impossible, but so much effort had been spent to so little effect that the Academy decided no more was warranted. Not because (as we might now be tempted to say) such a machine would require a supernatural mechanism, but because they didn’t think there was any chance of it working. The suggestion made in Question 2 is correct, and can be extended beyond the supernatural to futile questions in general; when, as often happens, we turn aside from investigating this or that incredible claim, we do not do so on principle but because experience warns us that we would be wasting our time.

Now for the final question, does it matter? Yes, obviously, as an intellectual question. Also, I think, from the point of view of the individual researcher. We all of us carry philosophical baggage, but scientists to my mind should do their best to travel light, so unnecessary principles should be deliberately discarded. But, most importantly, as part of the ever-necessary strategy of defending science from its enemies. As I shall argue in my next post, the principle that science is only allowed to look for natural causes is widely seen as a bastion against obscurantist encroachment. But this is a strategic error. It is an unnecessary and inaccurate metaphysical add-on to science, an easy target for its enemies, and should be abandoned.

I thank Maarten Boudry for helpful suggestions. Illustrations: Book cover from Amazon; “Vain Hoax” from Dave Thomas at New Mexicans for Science and Reason here (see also here). An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

[1] This discussion refers to Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code books, rather than to the original statistical puzzle posed by Eliyahu Rips, who has dissociated himself from them.

[2] New Statesman, 19 June 1964, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic, OUP 1984

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 7, 2014, in Education, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Very nice analysis Paul.
    I’ve been concerned for some time about how I define some of these distinctions between supernatural and natural myself, with some amount of trepidation.
    Your essay here is very helpful.


  2. “, but we do not have a satisfactory account of mind-matter relationships anyway”… Really? says who?Date: Sat, 7 Jun 2014 12:22:52 +0000 To:


    • You and I, Mark, would agree that what happens in the mind is the same thing as what happens in the brain. But I don’t think we have anything like a good brain level description of, say, enjoying a joke, and even if we had such an account I don’t think a totally humourless person could examine it and get any idea of what it feels like to enjoy a joke.


  3. Please correct me if I’m over/misinterpreting, but you seem to be getting at the idea that while we might argue where the distinction between the “natural” and “supernatural” lies, the distinction itself is somewhat pointless because all that matters is this demonstrable effect. If one posits an effect (e.g., “prayer cures cancer” or “this perpetual motion engine will forever spit out free energy”) we can test for that effect. If there is an effect, then then claim is real. If there is no effect, the claim is false. And this is why we reject “supernatural” claims; they have, so far, shown no effect. As you pointed out, perpetual motion was thrown out on an experimental basis before the theoretical basis proved it would need a supposedly “super” natural explanation. The lack of demonstrable effect rendered it as a dead-end, not a philosophical viewpoint. (as suggested by Boudry’s 2010 paper if, again, I’m reading it rightly) And I agree, the focus on the natural is an add-on that is unnecessary in light of just examining the practical effects a claim suggests irrespective of what the explanation claims to be.

    But a lot of people invoke the supernatural to say that their claim can’t, by definition, be tested by science. This seems to me to be the primary reason it is invoked as an explanation in the modern day at all. The studies you mention demonstrating that prayer emphatically doesn’t work, for example, are often rejected on the grounds that “but you can’t study prayer with science!” as if this sentence was some magic spell that alleviated the need to have a demonstrable effect. In other words, “supernatural” is used to *excuse* the fact that such an effect can’t be shown in the first place. Indeed, isn’t this why ID advocates and creationists would attack science for being too naturalistic? If they could fight their claims on grounds of demonstrable effects, they would have no need to use this escape hatch argument.

    So the use of “supernatural” out in the wild doesn’t have much to do with exactly what the properties of the claim are, no matter how complicated and technical the definition (I can’t access Boudry and Edis’ “unphysical causation” paper right now, but the abstract seems to suggest they’re bending over backwards to keep “the supernatural” around as a term because they can, not because they should).

    So to many people who invoke it, the supernatural has no effect – no matter what they *say*, what they actually believe and expect suggests otherwise. And they make excuses for it.

    Considering the above, isn’t this scientific focus on the effect, rather than whether something is natural or supernatural, functionally the same as the a priori distinction – that the supernatural can’t exist by definition and that “super” natural events are just natural events in a fancy suit – in your first paragraph? To me it seems as if you’ve dismissed one idea and replaced it with the same idea! Certainly, to say that an event causes an effect we’re implicitly assuming it has some kind of natural component, even if the higher explanation is arbitrarily “super” natural. If prayer cures cancer, the cancer that it cures is very much natural no matter how you spin it. To me that is just still philosophical naturalism, just approached differently.

    (Apologies for the rambling, I was also initially in the “If something occurs, it’s part of nature.” camp, but this has got me reassessing that somewhat)


    • A whole discussion here. In brief, you cannot without contradiction say both that prayer hastens recovery, and that prayer is not amenable to science, since the claim to hasten recovery can be, and has been, examined scientifically. Boudry and Tanis give two kinds of definition of supernatural; technical, from information theory, to mean inexplicable by anything that would qualify as the result of any (including any as yet unknown) law of nature, and pragmatic, e.g. regrown limbs for Catholics only, or water into wine but only at Jewish weddings. But how, and if, to define natural/supernatural or scientific/nonscientific, are large topics.


      • Not without contradiction, no. But that doesn’t stop people.

        And yes they are huge topics. Maybe one day an insolent amateur like me might even know half of it. I look forward to your follow-up posts on this.


  4. Excellent piece, Paul. This takes up where Tyson recently left off (“Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?…if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world), and I think lays it out in a better, more fulfilling manner.

    Boudry is a great guy. I chatted with him about his awesome paper, “The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder: Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence.” If you haven’t read it, do… It’s hilarious.


    • I first came across Boudry in his piece on Irreducible Incoherence and Intelligent Design: A Look into the Conceptual Toolbox of a Pseudoscience Maarten Boudry, Stefaan Blancke, and Johan Braeckman, which a cruel editor had put in the same Quart Rev Biol number (2010:4) as Behe’s sad review, Experimental Evolution, Loss-of-Function Mutations, and “The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution” Michael J. Behe.

      We have corresponded intermittently since. The only problem is that we find so little to disagree about.


  5. I would argue that this is very close to a “How many angels can stand on the point of a pen” discussion. If a phenomenon is not testable, and I add disprovable as a subset, then it is not something that science can address for causality, since predictions cannot be made. No tests – no prediction. The distinction between supernatural and natural causality arises, I believe, simply from some peoples’ claim that some phenomena’s causality is supernatural, and that being so, there is no use to look further for natural causality. So, some time ago in the development of the definition of science, someone tried to cover that very point.

    When Dave Thomas and I were doing our radio show, we always started out with a very short definition of science saying that it was really much more complex than what we were saying. Then we would say that science (not the collection of data, but rather the basis) cannot accept supernatural causality. It can certainly explore claims of supernatural causality, but if there is no predictive test, then it is not, as of yet, science. For example, if water can only be somehow transmuted to wine only at Jewish weddings, we can scientifically test that claim. Should it turn out that we gather enough evidence to say we are fairly certain that is correct, then we take the next step. [That’s a lot of weddings, and of course one would have to drink the purported wine to find out, so I doubt our livers would ever allow us to get to that answer!] The next step would be to look for causality. We would not posit that this is a miraculous transition, though. And that is where science must rule out supernatural causality. So even though one need not carry that around as part of your “baggage” in defining science, it is still fundamental to science. And that relates to why Dave and I said this week after week. We were speaking to novices in general, and wanted to make sure they understood that science is not a search for supernatural answers, but rather a search for answers based on natural causality.

    I could go on and on, but will summarize by saying that the more sophisticated thinker, or more experienced, perhaps, should understand this without explanation. But not all are so sophisticated or experienced. So we do not use that in an operating sense, but we do often say it to the person who, although potentially very smart, knows little if anything of the topic. Once a person gets it, so to speak, there is not need to use it in defining what science “is not.” And that’s what it is really used for in practice – defining what science is not.



    • Here we disagree. We are dissatisfied with supernatural explanations, and seek alternatives when they are offered, but for me, that is the exact opposite of laying down the law in advance so as to reject them unexamined.


      • Ah – herein enters the sine qua non of methodological naturalism. One must be able to predict from science, and that cannot happen if the supernatural is allowed as a causal agent. Again, exploring a phenomenon claimed to be supernaturally caused is very different then shrugging ones shoulders and saying that since it is supernatural, predictions are not possible. To do that without logically or physically exploring the phenomenon is not scientific, rather it is dogmatic. That does not in the least say there is no supernatural. It simply says that science cannot use a supernatural causality, because such a causality precludes prediction. Hence, that is what science is not. But again, I say that once this is understood, there is not need to carry along as baggage, as you have said. But it must be understood. Science cannot explore the truly supernatural if such exists, because it does not lead to predictability. But science can explore claims of the supernatural. The worst that can happen is one cannot find a plausible natural cause. But that does not imply there is a supernatural cause. I do not say a supernatural claim should not be examined, Pablo. That is, indeed, close minded.


      • I think even this weakened version of your thesis is too strong, and that we have no need to apply a test for naturalism/supernaturalism over and above the ordinary tests for plausible/implausible. More in the sequel, up here on 3 Quarks Daily and coming to this site later.


  6. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, or of the supernatural, nor the operation of any supernatural entity. That is a mainstream scientific position.

    Its an illogical position to claim to investigate ‘natural’ evidence of the ‘supernatural’.

    “you cannot without contradiction say both that prayer hastens recovery, and that prayer is not amenable to science”

    Yes, you can. And the supposed ‘scientific’ studies of prayer are a great illustration of just how pointless such as idea is.

    There has not been, nor ever will be, a scientific study of prayer.


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