Supernaturalism (part 2)

by Peter Tim

There are many ways of drawing borders on the landscape of religion. Freethinkers often consider that people are either “religious” or “secular.” A more familiar way is to distinguish theists from atheists and agnostics. Note that the latter are always paired with each other, because neither believe in god(s). The agnostics just “aren’t sure” is the popular idea, as if anyone can truly be sure of anything. But perhaps the most important distinction is that between naturalism and supernaturalism. For polls show (see last month’s bulletin Supernaturalism, part 1) that a majority of Americans believe in “psychic powers,” ghosts, and other such claims. And that is really what those who champion facts and reason have a problem with, not just deities and “religious” superstitions.

Definitions pose some devilish details though. Naturalism is sometimes said to be the idea that “nature is all that there is.” But this begs the question of what “there is” is. No one knew anything about dark matter 100 years ago, and we have known of dark energy for less than 20 years, to take two examples. If the nature we knew in the past was not “all that there is,” how then can we know that the nature we know today is “all that there is?” Supernaturalists exploit this tentative character of naturalism. They say that their paranormal beliefs involve “subtle energies,” other regions of the putative “multiverse,” and “quantum” effects that make unwarranted extrapolations from the atomic and subatomic scale.

Naturalism is the idea that “nature” is what can be seen, heard, touched, or what we can build machines to detect for us, that the objective world we share is based on perceptions and interpreted by reasoning that are independent of anyone’s personal, private, subjective experience or even of consciousness altogether. For anything can be “explained” with arcane accounts unconnected with facts and reason that can neither support nor disprove whatever anyone wants to believe. It could even be said that you are not even reading this right now. No, it could well be that what you think you are experiencing is just a simulated hologram created by extra-dimensional quantum computers that are the only remnant of a once galaxy-spanning civilization of bacterial intelligent beings. Or, as David Hume put it in his 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

“If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another.”

American scientist and author Isaac Asimov said it like this:

“I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.”

This is why naturalists reject not only deities and life-after-death, but “psychic powers” and the rest of paranormalism. Do people have weird experiences? Yes, but such things are best explained by misperceptions, misunderstandings and faulty recall, many of which have been demonstrated and studied under controlled conditions. Stimulation of specific regions of the brain, in particular, has been shown to cause certain “paranormal” experiences. So it is clear that the human body and its sensory and neural interpretive systems are subject to all sorts of errors and distortions, which is why, as Asimov observes, multiple independent observations are important even in legitimate science.

We know that belief in deities, in angels and demons, and in other “religious” claims, besides being unsupported by evidence, is counterfactual and irrational. But the same is true of supernaturalism generally:

~ A brain affected by Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s or other neurodegenerative processes is surely better than a dead brain. Yet believers in an afterlife claim that one’s consciousness is not destroyed by having a dead brain (or even a decayed brain) when a damaged brain clearly results in profound impairments.

~ Supernaturalists often claim that skeptical observers interfere with “psychic powers,” foiling their validation under controlled conditions. But the truth is the exact opposite: if “psychic powers” were real then ESP/telekinesis would interfere with natural processes under study or depended upon. No scientific research could be considered reliable and airplanes could crash if pilots or passengers doubted the principles of aeronautics!

~ Not only that, but in pre-scientific ages — most of human existence — ESP/telekinesis would confer a huge survival advantage such that, if such “psychic powers” existed, evolution would have seen to it that pretty much everyone would have them for the same reason that pretty much everyone can see and hear.

~ If ghosts are real the whole world would be jam-packed with them including many more ghosts of animals than humans. Poltergeist activity would swamp out the doings of the living.

~ If something like “remote viewing” really worked, exploratory space probes and even medical diagnostic procedures and imaging would be superfluous.

~ Lotteries and casinos could not exist if the laws of chance could be affected by those who are highly motivated to alter them by paranormal means.

~ Despite enormous sums spent by the federal government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (renamed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health), evidence shows that prayer, homeopathy and other methods at odds with scientific principles do not work.

The point is that religious superstitions are just one part of a much larger domain of paranormalism, pseudoscience and irrational and counterfactual nonsense. Yet much of it is appealing and seems plausible to many, just like the promises of Bernie Madoff and other swindlers. It can be fairly straightforward to analyze it to the point of showing just how nonsensical it is. But this takes time and effort, access to and familiarity with information that may not be readily available, and habits of thinking that many people have not formed. Still, the same tools that deconstruct paranormalism and pseudoscience are effective in showing the absurdities of theology. If religious foolishness is to be countered, it can only be through dissemination of such tools of reliance on facts and reason.

Freethinkers often say that they just believe in one less deity. Or it is said that if believers can understand why they don’t believe in other deities than their own then they should be able to understand why Freethinkers don’t believe in theirs. The difficulty is that believers often really don’t disbelieve in other deities. Instead, they suppose that those other deities are demons. But to expose one is to expose them all. This is the task before us.

The corollary to this is a foundational element of the Church of Freethought: that there is really nothing wrong with religion that cannot be corrected by eliminating the supernaturalism that has been too long connected with religion. It is no bad thing — indeed, it is quite a good thing! — to make sense of our subjective human experience in ways that contribute to human satisfaction, well-being and peace. But this cannot and should not be done in opposition to facts or as an irrational “add-on” to the cooperative enterprise of science, which is how we make sense of objective experience.


~ Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi

~ An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural by James Randi

~ Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis by Bryan Farha

~ Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer

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