I ended my last post by promising to talk about what is natural and what is supernatural. To start I should look at the general terms “nature” and “natural” because they get used in many different ways. What does it mean, for example, when a product is listed as containing “all natural” ingredients? Anthropologists could weigh in here. Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, built a whole career on arguing that humans the world over distinguish between what is natural and what is cultural because humans ARE, in fact, part of nature, but don’t want to accept the fact. So . . . humans general say that what is “natural” is non-human, and what is “cultural” is human – or words to that effect. It’s a bit simplistic but gets to the root of the issue. Humans do everything possible to alter the world they live in to put their stamp on it saying “THIS BIT IS NOT NATURAL.” The essence of human intervention is the imposition of deliberate order that is recognizable and labeled – in some way or other – “not part of nature.” So, for example, humans cook their food and plan meals at certain times, rather than just grabbing something and eating it raw when they feel like it. Gorging when you feel like it leaves you open to being called a “pig” (i.e. not human). I know, I know, it’s all too simplistic – I’m trying to make a point quickly.
In English we use the word “artificial” to distinguish between things humans produce and things that nature produces. So honey is a natural sweetener, but aspartame is an artificial one. What’s the difference? Not as much as you might think. Humans manufacture aspartame from raw ingredients, and bees manufacture honey from raw ingredients. The main difference is that bees are not human. Bees build hives, have communities, communicate, and so forth, and all of that is natural, whereas humans build apartment complexes, live in towns, and whatnot, and somehow it’s not the same as what bees (or ants) do. Humans are pathological about separating themselves from nature. Ask a person who their favorite mammal is, and chances are they won’t say their mother. Humans are mammals, but we skirt around that fact. Large swathes of the U.S. population want to deny human evolution because the idea that we are part of the animal kingdom is abhorrent to them.
In the long run, however, there is a larger issue. Whether you accept or reject the conclusions of science, nature is the province of science, and what constitutes nature is the key issue here. Science takes as its purview everything in the universe that can be perceived, measured, and tested. Mostly that means tangible, concrete stuff ranging from sub-atomic particles to galaxies, but can take under its umbrella the intangible such as dreams and thoughts as long as they are handled in a certain way. The fringes of science can get a bit murky. My subject – anthropology – comes under a fair amount of criticism from the “hard” sciences, for example, because it doesn’t do enough in the way of measuring, theorizing, and predicting to suit “real” scientists. It’s all right. I’m fairly thick skinned about such criticism. But there’s something else going on. A lot of social scientists hide behind the notion that the social sciences are too complex to be made properly “scientific.” There are too many variables and they are difficult, if not outright impossible, to control for. When social scientists do study human behavior under controlled conditions, as in experimental psychology, the results are often extremely contentious. This is largely because human behavior is inherently complex – vastly more so than the movement of sub-atomic particles (which is quite complex enough). Isolating the variables in human behavior is next to impossible. But there’s more to it than that. Some people – myself included – believe that there are aspects of the world that are outside the realm of science completely and cannot be examined using the same tools. For the sake of simplicity I’ll use the term “supernatural,” that is, “outside [super] nature.”
This point gets us into difficult territory. A lot of people who call themselves “atheists” just flat out deny the existence of the supernatural. My suspicion is that their denial comes primarily from not having thought about the matter enough. Many descriptions of God are pretty dopey, but you don’t have to reject the notion of God completely just because common descriptions are infantile. A lot of people do though.
It’s also quite common to simply ignore things you don’t understand, or that don’t fit your worldview. It’s well known in neuropsychology that people can quite literally fail to see things that they believe should not exist. Our sensory mechanisms are strongly controlled by the ways our brains work. For example, there ought to be a blank spot in our vision caused by the insensitive area of the retina where the optic nerve and blood vessels attach (the blind spot), but there isn’t. Our brains just compensate for the gap in our retinas by filling in what’s missing. Our brains do a lot of “filling in” which we mostly don’t notice. This makes the idea of “seeing is believing” a bit fuzzy at best. Actually it knocks it flat on its face. “You see what you want to see” is a lot closer.
All right, science believes in independent observation and verification to get around this kind of observer bias. That’s all well and good, but it has its limits. Certainly if you get odd (i.e. unexpected) results from an experiment you do it again, or, better yet, you get someone else to do it again to check your results. If anomalies keep showing up, they get put into the “don’t know” file until a better scientific theory comes along which explains them. Maybe. What if some of these “anomalies” cannot be explained because they exist outside the realm of science – that is, they are not part of the natural world? The hard-boiled atheist/realist won’t buy that line of reasoning. For that person, if science cannot prove the existence of something, it does not exist. That’s a pretty weak stance. Can science prove the existence of beauty? How far is science along in probing its mysteries? Or those of love?
Of course you can say that love and beauty don’t really exist, they are just words – socially constructed categories that humans invented. For things that don’t really exist we sure use the words an awful lot. Rotsa ruck explaining to an artist that beauty does not exist. Just because we cannot define or measure something directly does not mean that it does not exist. Nor can we assert that just because only some people perceive something, it does not exist. That’s obvious nonsense. It’s difficult for us to perceive things our brains are not already wired for, so it’s perfectly possible for things to exist that the majority ignore. The dilemma comes down to a matter of who you want to believe. Paul says that he spoke to dozens of people who saw the resurrected Jesus. Did they really see him, or were they deluded? There’s no chance to check now, of course, but we can look at analogous events.
I dealt with this problem a little when I spoke about miracles: http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/miracles/ Lots of people have witnessed strange things that cannot be explained. Do we believe them? Sometimes people report it raining meat or fish, for example. Most people on hearing of such an event try to conjure up a natural explanation (even though it’s a bit odd). But some things just don’t admit of a natural explanation beyond arguing that the observers are delusional.
Let me propose an hypothesis. What if angels exist but they are not natural; they are supernatural? Furthermore, what if angels cannot be perceived by people who do not believe in them (i.e. not part of their worldview)? By the same token, they cannot be detected by physical means such as cameras. What then? There is no scientific test for the existence of angels under such circumstances. Do they exist or not? Going back to my last post – does God exist? There is no scientific proof one way or the other. An atheist is relying as much on faith as a believer.
I believe in God, not because there is proof, but because an awful lot of people in different places and at different times have had experiences that overlap with one another, and overlap with my experience and my thinking. I can entertain the idea that we are all delusional, and that nothing exists outside of the natural, scientific world. But at the very least that’s an awfully dull way to live.
To be continued . . .