Welcome to the new Doggerel series, where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything with the series, and it’s time for new beginnings. I will be completely rewriting the series, using the lessons I’ve learned as a blogger and commentator for science, logic, and atheism. This time, I intend to keep a consistent, calm tone and restrain myself from ranting.
To most skeptics, “supernatural” is effectively a nonsense word. Whenever a conversation involves someone invoking it to describe an entity or event, I want to know in clear terms what it means. In the original Doggerel #1, I cited the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition definition of “supernatural” as the only useful one I could think of. Obviously, life is not a D&D game, so that utility is quite restricted. I have seen no reason to change that general assessment.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common definitions:
There are serious problems with this definition. The first is that it’s defining a term by what it is not. Similar definitions, such as “non-temporal,” “non-spatial,” or “non-material” also fall into this trap. This tends to become a problem because our understanding of the natural world has been continually expanding. Lightning was once considered “supernatural” but it is now it is considered natural. The only thing that changed was that humans used the scientific method to gain an understanding of lightning. When our scientific knowledge grew, so did the scope of the word, “natural.” Under this definition, it seems that “supernatural” is a circumstantial property, not an objective one. The second problem is shared with another common definition:
“Beyond the scope of science”
To posit something as unmeasurable or undetectable by science is to make it unknowable or unpredictable. In principle, science makes no distinction between natural and “supernatural” phenomena. Science deals with observable, reproducible effects.
If a wizard was capable of consistently producing a bolt of lightning, science would be able to study this effect. Scientists would first determine if the wizard was really generating the bolt by controlling for alternate explanations: They would search the wizard for hidden electric devices, for example. If he could still produce the lightning bolt, they would have confirmed the existence of a new, unknown method of producing electric arcs. They would then carefully examine each visible part of the process and control for it: Is it necessary for the wizard to wiggle his fingers? Does he need to speak in Latin? Does he really need his magic wand? Will a substitute wand of a different material work equally well? It would probably take a lot of questioning and testing to develop a comprehensive theory of magic, but that’s what science is about.
The only claims that are beyond science in principle are untestable, unfalsifiable claims. If you can’t test it, how can you know if your hypothesis is right or wrong? Without the ability to test it, the truth or falsity of the hypothesis can only remain unknown. Without science, what alternative method of study do we have?
It is my suspicion that the use of this definition of “supernatural” may be seeing more use because some skeptics use it as shorthand to describe unfalsifiable beliefs. Popular fiction also likes to depict supernatural events as undetectable by “sciencey” or “natural” devices, which reinforces misunderstandings about what science is and how a scientist approaches a mystery. Science is about rigorous methods of asking questions, testing, and using results to narrow down possibilities to the simplest and most probable answers. Science is not a collection of specific detection tools.
Similar to the previous definition, “unobservable” faces a third general problem: If a phenomenon has no observable effects on the world, can it really be said to exist? Carl Sagan famously illustrated this problem by positing an invisible, intangible dragon that breathed heatless fire living in his garage. The qualities of being invisible and intangible were added to explain why simple methods of detection didn’t work, but at the same time they effectively crippled the dragon. An intangible dragon will not leave footprints in flour, but neither will she be able to move objects to explain a missing item. A heatless fire will not ignite flammable materials placed to detect the dragon’s presence, but this also means her fire breath cannot be used to explain a mysterious black mark. To paraphrase Sagan’s point: What’s the difference between an invisible intangible dragon and no dragon at all?
If supernatural things lack observable effects in principle, they are effectively irrelevant to our world, and the truth or falsity of their existence would be equally irrelevant to how we live our lives.
Advice to our opponents:
If you wish to present an argument for or about a phenomenon that you think of as “supernatural,” consider ignoring that particular property when you present your arguments. To a skeptic, the label is effectively irrelevant, and assertions of its relevance tend to cause frustration because we commonly see people using it as a “weasel word.” It’s often used to avoid discussions about the evidence, or even to claim that there can be no scientific evidence for the phenomenon. It also typically leads to arguments about semantics instead of maintaining the focus on the phenomenon and its explanations. The semantics arguments that result are common enough that many skeptics have come to see it as a deliberate stalling tactic.
For these reasons, please do not use the word unnecessarily. If you must use it for some reason, please think very carefully about how you choose to define it, and if that definition is truly relevant to the discussion.