Critics of atheism and or naturalism/materialism often present the dichotomy of naturalism and supernaturalism as a false choice. Naturalism entails the closed system of the known universe and supernaturalism represents the realm beyond or outside the physical world. Theists too easily dismiss naturalism and materialism as unproven, since they cannot disprove immaterial worlds and other dimensions, thereby seeking to grant religious beliefs in supernaturalism additional power. As I will show, this is a mistake as it unfairly manipulates the argument by a focus on what naturalism denies, rather than what it affirms.
The false dichotomy is represented by an either/or choice between:
- Natural + Supernatural
There are two reasons why this is fallacious:
- Supernaturalism is arbitrarily granted equal epistemological status with nature
- Limitless versions of Supernaturalism are available
The distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism has been something of a vexed question, and for the purposes of argument it is clarified as follows:
- the view of the world that takes account only of natural elements and forces, excluding the supernatural or spiritual.
- a being, place, object, occurrence, considered as supernatural or of supernatural origin;
- that which is supernatural,or outside the natural order.
Essentially the natural and supernatural are flipsides of the same concept. The supernatural is defined as outside or transcendent of nature. Naturalism entails a formal belief that nature is all there is. This is mostly perceived as a strong positive belief that the universe is a closed system with nothing beyond or outside of it. For the purposes of this discussion it will be useful to understand naturalism as simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension, as opposed to positively claiming it does not exist. This might be termed weak naturalism. Just as an atheist might be termed a weak atheist since he lacks belief in God, but does not necessarily positively disbelieve in all god(s).
Since the strong interpretation of naturalism effectively rules out anything beyond the natural, the theist is able to seize the opportunity to corner non-theists into a position they may not actually hold. A non-theist does not necessarily claim that the known universe is all encompassing, or that his lack of belief in God(s) demands that he also refutes any possibility of the supernatural. In order to create the false dichotomy the non-believer is conscripted, using naturalism, in to the position of denying any other knowledge or realm apart from the natural.
Since the definition of naturalism precludes supernaturalism, if we were able to identify another realm, perhaps an immaterial one, this realm might then by virtue of its discovery become part of the naturalist position. Therefore something is amiss. The distinction becomes meaningless if naturalism is equated precisely with our current knowledge. This is known as trivial naturalism. It must have a distinction in kind so that supernaturalism is not only unexplained by nature, but also has causes outside of nature or belong to systems with different laws, or is explained by the mental powers of immaterial Beings. Thereby, if discovered they would still be classified as supernatural.
This is dependent on the definition of nature. When we talk about nature we are discussing the observance of natural laws and cause and effect in the world. What exactly makes them natural? If God created the world would not acts of God within the world he created also be natural, as long he did not contravene the laws of nature he created? This question would be difficult to answer, and thankfully we can leave it to one side, since we are only concerned with the natural world as we know it. The distinction of supernatural refers to something operating beyond or outside of these laws, and would therefore be anything that is not controlled by the known physical laws of the universe.
Philosophically, the nature-supernature distinction is problematic because generally a ‘distinction’ relies on a comparison between two known entities. We know virtually nothing about allegedly supernatural entities, and can offer no verified examples for comparison. The supernatural is primarily a negation of natural – its’ definition dependent on overcoming, overriding or sitting outside the causation observed in nature. The supernatural cannot be defined as one thing, or one realm. It is the unknown not-natural which is as yet an undiscovered set of things, as far as we know potentially an empty set, and potentially an infinite set.
In terms of practical knowledge, the natural world and the supernatural are not equal. Those who speculate on a world beyond naturalism are unable to present the same level of evidence in support of it as we have for the natural world. In fact, there is no comparison whatsoever.
The universe exists; beyond philosophical ‘mind in a vat style’ equivocations one could hardly mount a convincing case that it does not. The nature of the physical universe and the physical laws which govern it are documented so extensively that we are able to make accurate predictions about future events, predictions about the movements of planets, tides, and the weather. Humans can perform complex medical interventions to improve our longevity, understand and control the spread of disease, utilize natural resources to provide food and shelter, create vehicles to navigated long distances and a myriad of other things too numerous to mention. In stark contrast the evidence in favor of a supernatural realm is confined to speculation, religious doctrine, ghost stories, and unverifiable claims of revelation.
Theists who seek to assert equivalency are on shaky ground. They might propose that since we do not know everything about nature we cannot disprove supernaturalism. This is a mistake. Inability to rule it out does not count as positive evidence in its favor, and indicates nothing about the probability of the supernatural realm.
Theists may argue that since we do not have an answer to some of the fundamental questions about existence itself, an answer might or must be obtained in realms that are as yet undiscovered. Again, lack of an answer to a fundamental question about the natural world, does not necessitate any evidence in favor of a theory that provides a non-natural answer; this is a non-sequitur.
Mysteries, such as the vast and uncharted universe, dark matter, our inability to traverse to distant galaxies, to enter black holes, or to understand what happened prior to 10-43 Plank time, and the unresolved aspects of abiogenesis, lead some to reason that since we don’t understand a great deal about existence then we must subscribe to an open mind about the supernatural, eventuating an apathetic attitude of giving it an even chance of existing. Since we don’t know a lot about fundamental reality we cannot say with great confidence that complete realms aside from the natural exist. This openness to new information is quite reasonable but should not lead to the conclusion that a transcendent reality, supplementary to the one we know exists, is equally likely to the hypothesis than the universe is a closed system. The lack of any evidence of a supernatural or immaterial realm is at least a prima facie case that it is more improbable than probable. Our imperfect knowledge of the natural world does not indicate a probability or equal likelihood of supernatural realms; this is a ‘super-nature of the gaps’ style argument (refer: God of the Gaps). Our inability to solve the fundamental questions of existence do not equalize theories with knowledge, or speculation with what is demonstrable by evidence.
Many versions of Supernaturalism
The supernatural realm is conspicuously absent a well-defined set of properties. The religions who agree with each other that this realm exists disagree spectacularly on what it entails. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions assume a supernatural realm exists but posit different entities within it, and different Beings governing it. Some propose Heaven and Hell as repositories of human souls. Some disallow any contact between the supernatural realm and the natural realm whilst others allow a myriad of interventions from angels, Gods and devils.
The contradiction ever present in theology is the argument that we cannot have contact or knowledge of what exists beyond our world, but we must have faith regardless, or obtain to knowledge through faith. Transcendental arguments of revelation through faith are numerous (see the Witness of the Holy Spirit) and yet they are unsupported by a consistent “known” nature of the supernatural. A singular or common standard does not apply and the alleged “experience” is reported in various different ways. The various versions of the supernatural are consistent with speculation rather than knowledge, and lead to an infinite number of possible worlds in the supernatural realm since there is no possibility or means of reducibility.
The False Dichotomy
The choice can be better outlined as follows:
- The Known Universe
- The Known Universe + Christian Supernaturalism
- The Known Universe + Islamic Supernaturalism
- The Known Universe + Hindu Supernaturalism
- The Known Universe + reincarnation, spirits, ghosts
- ….and on to infinity
Where the theist argues we must make a choice between two scenarios he is making a grave mistake. The actual choice is between the extant universe and an infinite number of possible worlds that we are prevented from having any knowledge of.
We should not be cornered into accepting such a speculative set of beliefs. The burden of proof is on the Theist to mount a case in favor of a well-defined supernatural realm. Once that is achieved we could properly compare the likelihood of one to the other.
The Theist is forced into jumping back and forth to either side of the evidential coin. Arguing, on one hand, that the supernatural is beyond our power to observe it by definition; that seeking to use our senses and perceptions and the tools of science to measure what is undetectable, due to its existence beyond the bounds of nature, is an exercise in futility; a category mistake.
On the other hand, they are unlikely to want to concede there is no way of knowing there is a supernatural realm or of determining what exists within it. The doctrines of their religion are based upon knowing these things. Not only do religions claim the realm exists they also proscribe a conception of what it might be like. The concept might include a deity, angels, various levels of either heaven or hell, activities, waiting chambers such as purgatory, and any number of other properties. The religion will often describe how the realm relates to our purpose in life, and how we should interpret the will of its deity or deities who reside there.
The theist is then forced to argue that we do in fact have knowledge of the supernatural dimension through non-evidential means. It’s worth considering the dictionary meaning of ‘evidence’ does not limit it to any type (on line Dictionary):
Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid
It then becomes apparent that it is the Theist who makes a category mistake by assuming a category of knowledge not available to them. If revelation, knowledge through faith, and witness of the Holy Spirit truly provide knowledge of the supernatural then they are evidence. This evidence could, therefore, be weighed in accordance with its consistency, verifiability and its ability to make predictions. As ‘evidence’ of another realm, or of God, we should reasonably expect the provision of knowledge relevant to humanity, or greater truths not available in this world, which might provide great insight in to the meaning of life, and the fundamental questions. At the very least we should expect a consistent description of the supernatural realm, the nature of the Beings therein, and the content of the experience. In contrast to these expectations, Theists seek to exempt such experiences from the measures of evidence.
Bearing in mind the definition of evidence mentioned earlier, the theist effectively claims to have unique access to a type of evidence outside of evidence itself; a logical impossibility. Analogously, we cannot claim there are possibilities beyond what is possible. We cannot logically do the illogical. Alternatively, they may counter this statement by saying they have evidence but it is only available to those who have faith. It can only be accessed by those committing to faith, and even then it is not demonstrable or verifiable to anyone without faith.
Naturalism does not entail a simple choice between two options. The supernatural realm entails an unlimited number of possible worlds. Not only do the proponents of the transcendental need to demonstrate the properties of another realm, they also need to demonstrate a means of detection. If alternative realms are proposed to be undetectable any claim to their existence is self-defeating. If they are proposed to be detectable and interactive with this world then their veracity should be demonstrated on evidence. Evidence cannot be discounted as, by definition, it constitutes the way in which we know things. It is not a knock down argument for theism to claim that naturalism or materialism cannot be proved; the unproved is the denial of the supernatural realm, whose probability is not helped, but hindered by its own unknowability and inscrutability. The false dichotomy is clear: the natural world is clear to see, the supernatural is undiscovered.