Natural and Supernatural I

In a recent post I described a list of things and events which we Christians believe in.  For obvious reasons, I didn't belabor the existence of pandas and hurricanes, which are not in dispute for most people.  Thus, while I mentioned the existence of the physical universe (something which not all religious traditions believe in, by the way), I wanted to focus on the things that nonreligious people of a skeptical bent don't accept.  These things are normally called supernatural, because they are not a part of the world of "Nature".  That is, they are not among the "visible" things; they cannot be seen by our senses or deduced through ordinary scientific research.  They are therefore above, or additional to, the things which Naturalists believe in.  The latin word for above is super, and thus we get the word "supernatural".

Whether or not this word is useful depends on what use we want to put it to.  An apt choice of word can illuminate a subject, while the wrong word can lump things together which ought to be kept separate.  Arguably, the word "supernatural" as defined above tells us more about what Naturalists think is important, than what Christians believe.  If we want to do a compare-and-contrast of the different worldviews, then it may be a useful word.  But if you want to explain what Christians think, the word is highly misleading.

Here's why.  Everything we Christians believe in, is supported by one of these two kinds of evidence:

  1. It has causally influenced the physical world at one time or another, and therefore made an observable difference to the actual sense experiences of some human beings.  If the human being is someone other than us, then we normally learn about this event, not through the scientific method but through the equally empirical historical method.  In other words, some one writes it down in a book, we decide that their testimony is credible, and decide to believe it.
  2. God (who falls into the first class due to his interactions with the world) has communicated to us, directly or through intermediaries, that something is in fact the case.

In the case of God, there is also a set of philosophical arguments for Theism which people can accept without necessarily being Christians.  Some of these arguments are even supported by things we have learned from Science!

If it really is true that supernatural entities are known to exist by these means, it isn't all that different from the way we know about most other things in life.  We all rely on sense experience, history, and authority in everyday life.  You don't have a separate name for things I know because my Aunt Rose told me, as though that by itself set it apart into a different category.  Well, you might if Aunt Rose was a notorious liar, but if you think Aunt Rose is a truth-teller, then they are just facts.  For some purposes, we may want to distinguish between historical facts and scientific facts, but it isn't as though there were a clear-cut distinction between those two things.

So we shouldn't really distingush between the natural and supernatural on the basis of how we know.  Could we distinguish them on the basis of how frequently they interact with our world?

I've said that Heaven (in the theological sense) and Earth are like two separate universes.  However, they aren't watertight compartments, since things can sometimes go back and forth between them.  If we try to define the supernatural as things which seldom interact with the world we live in, it would seem that gravitons would also be a supernatural concept since, even though they are predicted by our scientific theories, they interact so weakly with everything else that it is hopeless to ever observe an individual graviton.  That clearly isn't right.

Can we distinguish them on the basis of what kinds of things they are?  Well, we know something about what ordinary matter is made out of.  If there are supernatural entities out there, and if any of them have parts, they would presumably have to be made out of something else.

Of course, even here on Earth, some things are made out of different building blocks than others.  Light is composed of photons, elephants are made of atoms.  But the two interact with each other.  Physicists like myself—er, excuse me, I guess this should actually be physicists unlike myself—have studied the interactions between different kinds of matter, and figured out how they all work.

We have succeeded to the extent that we can write down a set of general equations which describe all of the experimentally known forms of matter.  Except, uh, for dark matter, which is 5 times as abundant as ordinary matter, and which we only know about through its gravitational effects.  And perhaps dark energy (although that can be explained with a simple modification to Einstein's equation of general relativity, which Einstein originally proposed to make the universe unchanging with time, thus missing out on the chance to predict that the universe is expanding).  And several different kinds of fields which may or may not be needed to describe physics shortly after the Big Bang.  And we have no idea how to treat gravity quantum mechanically.  But besides all that, we've got a pretty good handle on a precise description of the "fundamental" laws of physics, even if they're really just an approximation to something we don't have yet.

These equations have a certain amount of mathematical beauty and coherence.  Although they don't reduce everything down to one basic principle, they do reduce it to a medium- sized number of particles / fields which interact via four forces: gravity, electromagentism, and the strong and weak forces.  Although these four forces are not the same, there is a certain similarity in the way that each of them is handled.  (They also interact via the Higgs boson, but nobody ever calls this a fifth force, because it is not really very much like the others.)

But again, it seems provincial to define supernatural simply as things we can't describe with mathematical precision.  For all we know, if we could do experiments on angels, we would find that they also conform to an elegant set of mathematical equations.  (Although, considering that it took us thousands of years to find the right equations for the physical universe, which we interact with every minute of our lives, I wouldn't advise that you hold your breath.)  Besides, would we really want to say that until the time of Galileo, a ball falling to the ground was a supernatural event?  Once again, the concept which we thought was a description of the thing, turns out to be a fact about its relation to us, like the word foreign.

However, in Christian theology, there does turn out to be a distinction which is grand enough to justify a portentious word such as supernatural.  There actually is a way to divide the universe into two classes of entities, such that one really is "super" to the other, not just with respect to the limitations of our own knowledge, but in reality.  More on this next time.  But if you can't wait for the next post, ask yourself this question: what exactly is it again that the Jews are famous for?

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my first postdoc at UC Santa Barbara.
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