A comment from Thill on a recent post makes me reconsider the category of the supernatural, which I’ve employed many times on this blog. It’s been an important category in my reflection because I acknowledge the normative weight of natural science, and am suspicious of claims that contradict its findings. When Śāntideva tells us that advanced bodhisattvas can fire rays from their pores that make the blind see and make malodorous people smell better, I have reason to disbelieve him. The idea of rebirth – at least in the straightforward way Śāntideva portrays it, with bad people getting reborn in hells – makes me similarly suspicious, which is one reason I’ve been so sympathetic to Dale Wright’s project of naturalizing karma.
But Thill points out that there is a difference between “supernatural” and “unscientific.” In the comment he’s responding to, I define the supernatural as “that which seems implausible given the findings of natural-scientific research.” I derive this from a slightly more sophisticated version I gave in my dissertation: supernatural claims are “claims for causal processes that are implausible given the findings of natural-scientific research.” (emphasis added here) But even this version is vulnerable to Thill’s criticism.
Thill notes that by this criterion, “claims of alien abduction, alien visitations, presence of aliens on Mars or the Moon, claims that cancer is caused by a virus, etc.” would count as supernatural. The points about aliens don’t strike me as a problem for the definition; claims made about aliens (with insufficient scientific evidence) would fall with little difficulty under the category of the “paranormal,” which seems close enough to “supernatural” to me. Claims that cancer is caused by a virus, however, are a bigger problem – as, perhaps, are claims that vaccines cause autism. It would be hard to call these pseudoscientific claims “supernatural”; they ignore the scientific evidence, but they do not presume any interruption in the usual processes of natural causality.
For the concept of “supernatural” is properly used in contrast not to science, but to nature. So I could try here to spell out a more careful definition of “supernatural” – but I won’t, because I have yet to find the concept of nature particularly useful in philosophical reflection. Unlike “religion,” I don’t think “nature” obscures more than it clarifies; I just don’t see it as clarifying very much. When I use the term it’s mostly to think about “the nature of a thing” (like “human nature”), rather than “natural laws” or “nature in general”; and I think it’s the latter with which “supernatural” is generally contrasted. It may just be that I haven’t thought enough about “nature” yet; if nature comes to be more important to me, I’ll probably need to rethink the supernatural as well. (One possible reason: in the previous discussion about transcending death, I noted the appeal of Śaṅkara’s position, in which the human end is a oneness placed beyond time itself: while this is not unscientific, in the sense I outline below, its appeal might be supernatural in that it goes beyond death as a natural process.) But for the moment, at least, it instead seems best to me to switch concepts – to stop talking about the supernatural and start talking about the unscientific.
I think I’ve been reluctant to speak of the unscientific because the concept has a whiff of the empiricism or scientism I disdain: the idea that scientific claims are the only ones worthy of discussion. But it’s not so hard to work around this problem: one simply has to distinguish the unscientific from the nonscientific. Non-empirical facts can be established by a priori argument. These are not established through science but they are compatible with it; indeed some of them are necessary for it. The practice of science itself depends logically on certain key propositions (such as the validity of sense experience to truth) which cannot themselves be demonstrated through science. I’ve recently finished Ken Wilber’s interesting edited volume Quantum Questions, which collects the writings of some of the world’s most noted physicists (including Einstein, Schrödinger and Max Planck) on philosophical and metaphysical questions. Against the book’s self-description, these thinkers are not all “mystics,” nor are their writings all “mystical”; some hew to a more-or-less Kantian view of the human subject, which isn’t about spiritual paths or mysteries or transcendent experiences. Nevertheless, what these great scientists do have in common is a view that scientific evidence can’t answer every question; they believe in nonscientific claims, despite their commitment to refuting all that they deem unscientific.
Now what does it mean to speak in terms of the unscientific rather than the supernatural? What difference does this difference make? Well, I’ve already noted an implication in my comment to Skholiast, which Thill was replying to. My post (and its predecessor) had explored the idea that very few thinkers in the history of philosophy had taken an approach which was neither supernatural nor political, and I wondered why that would be. But if we phrase it as “neither unscientific nor political,” the field changes a bit. For my exemplar of a thinker who was “neither supernatural nor political” was Epicurus, whose views never really lasted, for whatever reason. But while Epicurus seems relatively non-supernatural, denying the existence of an afterlife and even many gods, I don’t think he’s particularly scientific, any more than most of his contemporaries. Given the knowledge people had at the time, gods seemed like decent explanations for many of the world’s phenomena. Indeed, until Darwinian evolution came along, God might well have been the best hypothesis available to explain the adaptation of species. Epicurus’s follower Lucretius opposes ideas of God and the afterlife not so much because empirical evidence oppose them, but because of the deleterious effects these ideas have on human well-being.
If our emphasis shifts from the supernatural to the unscientific, then the question seems to become “Why do thinkers become more political as they become more scientific?” And then it would seem we are asking about the nature of that rough beast called modernity – that strange historical condition in which natural science, a politicized citizenry, and a capitalist economy emerge roughly in the same places at the same times. The nature of modernity has perplexed minds greater than mine. That doesn’t mean the question is unanswerable; but at any rate I don’t think I can answer it in this post.