How Much Supernatural Can You Tolerate?

The person sitting on your left on the subway might believe that an unseen all-knowing white male is in control of the universe.  The person sitting to your right might believe in a vague ethereal interconnectedness in the universe that explains improbable events.  The person directly across from you might claim to believe only in science, but they play a lucky lottery number.  What all of these have in common is that they believe there is something supernatural in the universe, though they differ greatly in the extent to which they assign concepts to the supernatural.

I no longer sense anything supernatural in my experience.  After years of education and experience I have learned the psychology behind a number of phenomena that might seem supernatural.  And I’ve studied science in college and in a lifetime of reading with a discerning eye for truthfulness – thank you A. J. Ayer!  But I also get that there are people who don’t get physics and psychology like I do, and I cannot fault them for ascribing agency to random events, or to physical phenomena that they have not studied.  So I’m comfortable with other people claiming to perceive something supernatural.  As for them ascribing concepts to something they clearly see as inexplicable, that’s another matter.

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One Response to How Much Supernatural Can You Tolerate?

  1. Here’s a slight wrinkle on the theme of tolerating belief in the supernatural: the contrast between ‘supernatural’ and ‘preternatural’. Preternatural phenomena are presumed to have rational explanations that are (as yet) unknown. We can actually see something that is preternatural, we just don’t understand it, whereas the supernatural we don’t even see. Not that there is a lot of preternatural going on these days. The ancient fields of the preternatural have been grazed bare by hordes of grad students in the sciences. Today, the word preternatural is used much more figuratively than literally.

    The idea of ‘preternatural’ caught my attention lately when I noticed some otherwise open-minded friends choosing supernatural explanations (aka divine intervention) to explain improbable events, rather than taking the preternatural approach of considering the stochastic probabilities of things that we know can actually happen. Maybe their cousin’s friend’s niece’s cancer went into remission in spite of the doctor’s prognosis. That’s good news, of course. But, first, is it reliable news? Has there been some loss of information in the retelling, or perhaps exaggeration? And then do cancers go into remission against doctor’s orders? Yes, they do, sometimes. So was it supernatural divine intervention following the cousin’s friend’s niece’s prayers to be healed, or was the niece’s body going to preternaturally defeat the cancer anyway to her doctor’s pleasant chagrin?

    I’m going to use Occam’s Razor to highlight a point. Not that I put any faith in it, since it is essentially a guess, but it seems to show how people think. For the niece’s cancer, Occam’s Razor can be more confusing than helpful From the perspective of pure argumentative simplicity, it is actually easier to say that a deity intervened and cured the cancer. There, it’s done. Occam’s razor fell on the side of simplicity, though it was a supernatural simplicity; no need to get into the messy science of peptides and receptors.

    But short of calling forth the Deus Ex Machina (literally, as it were), we know that the niece had been treated for cancer and that the probability of a cure was X% even if X% is very small. Behind the statistical probability for a cure lay the preternatural unknowns of how her body and her cancer reacted to the medicine she was given, how bad the cancer was to begin with, and what other real-world factors may have been at play in curing her cancer.

    So Occam’s Razor, like my otherwise open-minded friends, can attribute divine intervention out of thin air, or it can fall on the side of a more complex scientific explanation that we don’t (currently) know. My money is on the latter, the preternatural version.

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