Many opponents of religion criticize the belief in “the supernatural” as an atavistic superstition on the part of believers. “We,” they claim, “stick to the empirical reality we can see around us. We believe in the earth, and the stars, and trees, and animals, and human existence as beginning when a human body is created by a sexual act, and ending when that body dies. To believe in anything else is to be anti-empirical, unscientific.”
But I wish to suggest that for many (most?) of these “naturalists,” they have ignored the beam in their own eye, for they, too, believe in the supernatural. (Later in this post, I will discuss the case of naturalists to whom this point may not apply.) How can this be?
Well, consider the first definition of ‘supernatural’ offered by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.” (Didn’t they want a comma between ‘visible’ and ‘observable’?) Given the above definition, I claim that many so-called naturalists, in fact, believe in the supernatural themselves
How so? Well, many naturalists regard the laws of physics as the ultimate explanation of the actual world in which we live. But think about these laws for a moment, in light of the above definition: Are they visible? No, they certainly are not. No one has ever seen the law of gravity, or the law of attraction of the weak nuclear force. “But,” the naturalist may protest, “they certainly are observable!”
However, Berkeley and Hume countered this response long ago. As they noted, we never observe a law of gravity “making” things fall. We never observe a law of electro-magnetic attraction drawing two charged objects together. What we actually observe is that “That apple fell to earth,” or “That magnet drew some iron to it.” From many such observations, we may posit such laws, but those laws are never observed in and of themselves.
Furthermore, these laws are in no way “natural” objects, like planets or mushrooms or mountains. They are not made of any physical substance, they do not have any location in space, they are not the result of some prior physical process, and they do not arise in time or decay over time. They are posited (by those who believe in them) as timeless, placeless, immaterial, and omnipotent (no events can escape their control!) principles, principles that direct the natural world, somehow, from outside of it. In other words, they are supernatural! (Consult the Merriam-Webster definition above again, if you doubt this claim.)
Their supernatural character is very clearly exhibited in, for instance, the most recent book by Stephen Hawking, which posits that it is these laws that gave rise to the physical universe itself. “Natural” describes entities that arise and fade away within the physical universe, and that are composed of “physical stuff”; no such entities could coherently be held to create the universe which they depend upon for their arising. Hawking takes as a “brute fact” the supernatural existence of the laws of physics in order to get his bootstrapping started, thus hoping to avoid explicitly endorsing any metaphysics. In fact, I think it is justified to say that Hawking is forwarding here a theology, one in which he sees God as an eternal, immutable, and all-powerful nexus of mathematical laws, which can be rationally apprehended, and which from their own being generate the visible world around us. In other words, he is close to being a classical Platonist theologian, but one without the Platonic vision of the agathon or the Platonic recognition of the role of eros in creation. (And it is interesting to note how close Hawking’s theology comes to the Gospel of John’s “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God,” where “logos” is often translated into English as “word,” but is more accurately rendered, as I understand it, as “rational pattern,” i.e., as Hawking’s “laws” that through their rational pattern generate the observable universe.)
This conundrum is not completely unrecognized by naturalists (although we may question whether any of them have fully absorbed its import); one solution naturalists have sometimes advocated is to hypothesize that our universe, with its physical laws, is only one among many universes, each with its own laws, all of which actually exist. Now, it is hard to imagine that one could leave behind further the visible and observable than by supposing that there exists an infinity of universes, all but one of which are inherently invisible and unobservable by us. But even if we were to accept the hypothesis of the proponents of the multiverse, this would hardly block the supernatural from rearing its head: what we have, in this case, is a supernatural principle or law requiring that every possible universe actually come into existence. Ed Feser has brilliantly analyzed this aspect of multiverse theories, noting that, far from answering Leibniz’s question of why there is something rather than nothing, these theories simply multiply astronomically the number of “somethings” that have to be explained.
Now, some forms of naturalism may be protected against the charge that its proponents unwittingly incorporate the supernatural in their metaphysics. For instance, an anti-realist such as Larry Laudan does not accept that the laws of physics are “real,” in any sense other than that they are human constructions with a pragmatic end: "the aim of science is to secure theories with a high problem-solving effectiveness." There have been various objections raised against Laudan’s understanding of the nature of physical laws, but to go into them would lead us too far from our present topic. What is important about Laudan’s view, in terms of our current concern, is that it completely shuts off the possibility of making a move like Hawking’s, and postulating that the laws of physics are what actually generated the universe. It would be absurd to claim that a set of “laws” that are merely human-created devices for solving problems could be the source of the very empirical reality that gave rise to humans themselves.
Alternatively, a naturalist could adopt relativism a la Richard Rorty, and assert that all “truths” are merely cultural constructs, including those of physics. But, in such a case, it is hard to see why naturalism should be immune to such general deconstructionism: If one embraces cultural relativism, isn’t naturalism just one more cultural construct, perhaps true for you but not for me? Why, if we embrace Rortian relativism, should the cultural construct of “supernaturalism” not be granted an equal place at the podium with its rival “naturalism”?
In any case, the upshot of this essay is this: if you regard the laws of physics as real, rather than as just a human construct, then you have already accepted the reality of the supernatural. Why not also accept the invitation to turn your attention from the (natural) shadows on the cave wall, and towards their supernatural source? Rise up out of the cave, towards the light, and enter into the great conversation about the nature of the supernatural, one you can engage in with Buddha and Zoroaster, Lao-Tse and Plato, St. Paul and Plotinus, Augustine and Maimonides, Aquinas and Averroes, Milarepa and St. Francis, Berkeley and Leibniz, Luther and the Dalai Lama? After all, the air is much more refreshing on the heights than it is in the bowels of the cave.