A natural-supernatural distinction
The core metaphysical stance of Sacred River is naturalism. The shorthand definition of naturalism states that “the real is natural and the natural is real,” which lies in contrast to the supernatural, which naturalism posits is unreal. While this seems simple enough, things get sticky when we try to define exactly what we mean by natural and supernatural. This post does not try to provide any final solution to this question; it is part of an ongoing examination that will likely change over time. Much of what is here is a product of reading the ideas of Richard Carrier along with a wonderful conversation with Tom Clark who presides over at naturalism.org.
At a simple level, we can define the natural as that which mindlessly conforms to the fundamental laws that give rise to the cosmos. At this point in our scientific understanding, this means anything that fits within the model of matter/energy existing in space/time (as embodied in the Standard Model of Particle Physics). In order to be intellectually honest, we must admit that it is not impossible that we will discover something that will upset this model, say if we discover a substance that is not composed of the fundamental particles of normal matter. But even if we made such a discovery—as long as it could be shown that such a substance was an integrated component of the natural world—then the general definition of natural given above would stand.
It is also possible that our universe is only one such within a vast matrix of other universes, what is called the multiverse. If I understand what physicists are saying, then different universes can potentially have different laws (it’s even possible that there are distant parts of this universe that have variations on the laws we see). In such a case, the natural could be expanded to include that which mindlessly conforms to the laws that give rise to any given universe.
When we talk about what we mean by supernatural, we want to keep it reasonably consistent with how most people use the word and with common myths and superstitions. In that light, we can say that the supernatural is that which can interfere with the natural world but is not constrained by its laws. To be more precise, this definition is rooted in the following three propositions:
If the supernatural exists then:
(1) the natural and the supernatural are of two different orders regarding their underlying principles of existence, and
(2) the supernatural is unconstrained by our natural laws (i.e. those that underlie matter/energy in space/time), and
(3) the supernatural has the capability to cause physical changes by manipulating natural laws or bypassing them.
Let’s expand on these a bit more. If something exists or occurs—no matter how bizarre to our eyes—that is ultimately grounded in the same laws that give rise to our material universe, then it is a natural thing or occurrence. To the contrary, if a supernatural thing or event existed, that thing or event would not be reducible to our natural laws. It doesn’t matter if the underlying principles of its existence were, even in principle, explicable or inherently mysterious or even absent anything we would think of as fundamental laws—a supernatural thing would be utterly different than a natural thing from the bottom up.
The second point describes the basic freedom the supernatural has from what makes our universe possible. Whatever the properties of the supernatural thing or occurrence, it would not be constrained by our natural laws. For example, none of the four fundamental forces of our universe (strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravity) would play any role in the behavior of the supernatural. In pragmatic terms, this means that the supernatural cannot be (unwillingly) affected by any natural event, including human actions (except in the case of the mind itself being a supernatural construct…more on this below).
Finally, while the supernatural is exempt from natural laws, it has the ability to influence our material world, to cause changes within our physical system of matter-energy within space-time. For the sake of clear communication, we can choose to put supernatural interference into two categories: magic and miracles. Simply put, it is a matter of the intentional source: it is magic if the intentional agent is a human, human-like being (e.g. a fairy), or object (e.g. deck of tarot cards). A miracle has its source in a non-material mind, such as an angel or god. Although the final effects can take a wide variety of forms, they all share a fundamental similarity: a non-physical (matter-energy) causal agent, even if the event itself is physically normal (such as being made to fall in love via a spell; falling in love is perfectly natural, but the cause is not).
It might be the case that there are objects or events that appear to violate natural laws but in fact are perfectly natural. Absent scientific validity or plausibility, we call such a claim paranormal. A paranormal claim might be true, of course, although the current strength of the Standard Model requires that such claims provide extraordinary evidence. And even if true, it might be either natural or supernatural, depending on its features and what we learn about the fundamental properties of the universe.
One of the key sticking points in discussions like this is the issue of consciousness. Because it is unknown how the brain produces self-awareness, it is very common for it to be used as evidence for the supernatural, a typical construct being an immaterial soul. Despite our incomplete understanding of sentience and subjective experience, we have compelling evidence for the mind’s source in the material brain. But this essay is not intended to make such an argument, only to articulate a natural/supernatural distinction. As such, I propose that consciousness is natural if it is an emergent property of electrochemical processes in a brain; it is supernatural if it arises from conditions outside the infrastructure of matter-energy in space-time. Any other explanation that doesn’t fit these two must fall into the paranormal category, at least for now.
Based on this idea of consciousness, we can say that a supernatural agent is one that has a mind (of some kind) existing independently of a material brain. Any event that occurs due to a supernatural mind would itself be supernatural, even if it was otherwise completely indistinguishable from a natural object. And yes, that includes our entire universe—if the cosmos was created by a god, say, then the cosmos is a supernatural event. The only events that are natural are those that come about in mindless conformity to the laws that underlie the physical world.
The natural/supernatural dichotomy presented here is certainly not the only possible one. But this particular model has two benefits: it is grounded in our best explanations for reality and it makes metaphysical naturalism falsifiable. It also conforms to common conceptions of the supernatural. As a reminder, here is the basic outline of naturalism:
(1) only the world of nature is real
(2) nothing outside nature is necessary to account for its origin or ontological ground
(3) nature as a whole can be understood without appeal to any kind of intelligence or purposive agent
(4) all natural events are caused by other natural events in accordance with universal physical laws
Said in simpler terms, the essential claim of naturalism is that the natural is real and the supernatural is not. This brief essay has attempted to define what we mean when we say “supernatural” in such a way as to make the naturalist claim wrong. Of course, we do not think we are wrong and for very good reasons; but unless we allow for it to be falsified, we’ve simply rigged the game and created another dogma. If the supernatural is real, then so be it. But without a working definition, we also make claims to the supernatural too easy to make.
I hope this is not my final word on the matter…this is a philosophical exercise designed to bring greater precision to a physicalist naturalistic worldview, and as such should be amenable to improvement. With that in mind, I leave it here and invite feedback.