Science and the supernatural

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post, Jerry Coyne claims that science can test the supernatural.  I disagree, and this post will be a response to that claim.  In my view, what Jerry is really talking about, is testing the claims about the natural world that are made by some supernaturalists.  And, for sure we can, at least in principle, test claims about the natural world.  But testing claims about the natural world is not testing the supernatural.

I adamantly maintain that science can indeed test the supernatural—at least those claims about the supernatural that involve its interaction with the real world.

The trouble with that, is that science does not actually test the alleged interaction between the supernatural and the natural world.  It tests only claims about the natural world itself.

Indeed, you’ll be familiar with several claims about the supernatural that have already been tested, and refuted : the Genesis story of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, a 6,000-year-old earth, and the efficacy of intercessory prayer, as well as paranormal phenomena like near-death experiences, telepathy, and precognition.

But none of these involves a claim about the supernatural.  They are all claims about the natural world.  If geology had come up with clear evidence that the earth was 6000 years old, scientists would not be asserting that this was evidence of the supernatural origin of the earth.  They would be insisting that it is only evidence that the world is 6000 years old.  We need to be consistent about this.  Since the evidence from geology and geophysics is that the world is far older, then we can conclude that the world is far older.  We cannot thereby conclude that we have disproven anything about the supernatural.  At most we have evidence that contradicts claims about the natural world that are made by supernaturalists.

If you invoke a form of the supernatural that claims to have real-world consequences, then those consequences necessarily fall within the ambit of science.

That much is true.  But it is only those consequences, which are themselves claims about the natural world, that become subject to scientific scrutiny.

This means that any type of theistic faith involves hypotheses that are “scientific”.

And that is an overstatement.  Some theists, for example, cite the Adam and Eve story as being about the implanting of a spiritual soul in our ancestors.  There is nothing scientific about that kind of theistic claim.

The idea that certain rituals by Native Americans can bring rain, for instance, could be easily tested with controlled experiments.

But that is entirely a claim about the natural world.

Ditto for the notion that sending money to the American huckster evangelist Creflo Dollar will bring you prosperity via the grace of God.

Except for the last few words (that “via the grace of God” part), this too is only about the natural world.  A theist could claim that one earns the grace of God, even if prosperity on this earth is not achieved.  But such a claim about earning the grace of God is not at all testable by science.

I’ve just read a very nice paper on these issues by Yonatan Fishman in the journal Science and Education (2009, free download), which I recommend it to everyone interested in this question.

The title of that cited paper is Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  By definition, a worldview is a way of looking at the natural world.  Even if we can test supernatural worldviews, that would not be testing the supernatural.  We would be testing only the claims about the natural world that are made by people who hold such a supernatural worldview.

Science doesn’t “prove” or “disprove” anything.

I often see such statements.  But it is patently false.  Science uses mathematics, and scientists are known to use the methods of mathematical proof in their work.  Arguably, what they prove is conceptual (relations between concepts) rather than empirical.  But let’s not make overstatements here.  It goes too far to say that science doesn’t prove anything.

A Bayesian probability perspective on religious claims shows that they can be strengthened or weakened by science until they reach the status of scientific “proof” or “disproof” as outlined above.

This ignores the devious ways in which theists manage to present their claims in so as to protect them from empirical evidence.

Indeed, if miracles, answered prayers, and regrown limbs were seen, the faithful would trumpet this as evidence for God

This is surely true.  However, scientists would (or should) respond  by pointing out that this is only evidence for regrown limbs and answered prayers, that it is not actually evidence for God.  And consistency demands that if answered prayers and regrown limbs are not seen, then this is only evidence against answered prayers and against regrown limbs, but is not evidence against God.  I omitted mention of “miracles” in that comment, because the meaning of “miracle” is not at all clear.

This is about honesty, not accommodation

Personally, I see religion as mostly made up nonsense.  I have no interest in accommodating it.  But I do have an interest in honesty.  When it comes to dealing with the attacks on science, knowledge and common sense that come from religion, our main tool is the power of persuasion.  We are most effective in persuading if we are seen as honest.  When we overstate our position, we are likely to be seen dishonest, as driven by ideology rather than evidence.  And that weakens our ability at persuading others.

Let’s avoid overstatement and try to stay honest.


3 Responses to “Science and the supernatural”

  1. The way I like to explain it is that there are (at least) two great objectives of science. The first (and lesser) is to determine if phenomena are, in fact, real. Thus, we can scientifically decide if someone had cancer but no longer has it … what doctors call “spontaneous remission” and theists call “miracles.”

    The second (and greater) objective is to discover the “natural” (which amounts to the “lawlike”) causes of of phenomena. But “spontaneous remission” and “miracles” are not lawlike. A phrase like “spontaneous remission” is just a placeholder for our scientific ignorance of the cause, just as “miracle” is. If you assume metaphysical naturalism is true, then there is no possibility of a miracle. But you are only assuming and that ain’t science … it is, at best, philosophy. Coyne,et al,, are free to have their philosophy but they are not free to call it science … anymore than the IDists are.



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