Closed to the supernatural?

I have often heard the charge that critics of the concept of God are simply closed to the possibility of a transcendent being, or of miracles, or of the supernatural in general. If you closed to these concepts from the beginning, then no amount of evidence will sway you. I was thinking about this, and what my perspective is, and I came up with a few thoughts.

My first reaction is that I don’t know what the terms mean. For example, someone says that I am closed to the idea of a “trogglet”. What does it mean? I am not closed, nor open, to the idea of a “trogglet” simply because it is not defined. Ok, so define it!

  1. Definition of a transcendent being:

    Transcendence refers to the aspect of God’s nature which is wholly independent of (and removed from) the physical universe. [wikipedia]

  2. definition of supernatural:

    The supernatural is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature. [wikipedia]

  3. definition of miracle

    A miracle often denotes an event attributed to divine intervention. Alternatively, it may be an event attributed to a miracle worker, saint, or religious leader. A miracle is sometimes thought of as a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature. Others suggest that a god may work with the laws of nature to perform what people perceive as miracles.[1] Theologians say that, with divine providence, God regularly works through created nature yet is free to work without, above, or against it as well.[2] [wikipedia]

I would content that these definitions aren’t particularly specific, but let’s raise another issue: how would you know that something supernatural exists, or a supernatural event has happened? Since we can only be aware of physical effects, we have three choices:

  1. supernatural events occur only supernaturally (i.e. no impact on physical reality)

  2. supernatural events have some impact on physical reality and the impact works within physical law

  3. supernatural events have some impact on physical reality and the impact goes beyond physical law

If you want to claim choice 1, then there is no difference between a supernatural event and no event at all (i.e. it is content-free). If you want to claim choice 2, then there is no way (even in principle!) to tell whether the cause is supernatural, and thus is also content-free. That leaves the final choices, which perhaps is testable (in theory) but you then must rule out any and all possible natural interpretations of those events. Essentially it boils down to a God-of-the-Gaps arguments, because you’re simply left with “I can’t think of any way that this event could have happened naturally”.

The interesting thing about this is not that we have come to the conclusion that the existence of supernatural events is either content-free or God-of-the-Gaps, but that the purported “Gaps” that are often claimed are so trivial, and already filled, that it undermines the entire endeavor. Design in biology is solved by evolution, regardless of the protestations of the creationists. The origin of the universe is systematically being solved by the cosmologists, with no help from the theists. I’d love to see something that really rises to the level of a miracle, like the 10 commandments etched in Pluto or something. Although technically a God-of-the-Gaps argument, it would be very interesting indeed! However, we are given no such evidence.

It is reminiscent of the UFO enthusiasts. We’d love to see actual objects from aliens, or actual communication from aliens, or convincing video. Instead, we’re given bad evidence after bad evidence.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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