Nature & Supernature

by Robert Wheeler

We all want our daily activities and our life in general to be comfortable, manageable, and meaningful. To have this we need to feel that we can influence important things, and that things have some predictability and explanation. We live in a cause and effect environment, and we have an innate need for an explanation that provides cause for our activities. Why do we need both natural and supernatural explanations?

                At one time the explanation of causes was quite limited. Our primitive ancestors knew that sunshine caused their body to get warm and that the sun could be considered the local or proximate cause. But what caused the sun to be there in the first place?  The warmth had a natural explainable cause, however the sun’s presence was a mystery. Explaining the sun’s existence required assumption of an ultimate or distal cause. Either because of discomfort from that mystery or because of some insight, a supernatural explanation was accepted. The use of a supernatural explanation to alleviate the mystery is called “God-of-the-gaps.” The use of insight is called “revelation.” Thus began religion and belief in supernatural causes. As objective knowledge revealed the sunrise to be a natural terrestrial event, the belief that a supernatural force pushing up the sun was abandoned and the God-of-the-gaps was questioned. This conundrum exists today. Scientific findings caused natural explanations to replace supernatural explanations and question validity of religious dogma.

                Today, natural explanations are available for most phenomena, that is until we marvel about the intricacies of life (such as child-birth and death) or wonder about what is out there beyond our own vision or that of science. Although theories exist, objective information (science) cannot explain why the sun exists or we are here and where we came from, but supernatural explanations are available. Faith in a supernatural agent has many benefits, not only explanation for our ultimate concerns, but also connections with other people of similar faith. This is the basis for religions with their social organizations that provide material and spiritual support, belongingness, forgiveness, emotional uplift, immortality, and positive regard.

                There is a hazy line between naturalism and supernaturalism. Naturalism is defined as the doctrine that physical laws are adequate to account for all phenomena. Supernaturalism is defined as belief in supernatural power and source of existence. There are many other definitions for naturalism, supernaturalism, natural, and supernatural, however the ones used here are most widely used to deal with the issue of validly explaining ultimate questions either with scientific information or by non-scientific insight.

Science now has the ability to look out in space far enough to reveal nebulous phenomena that require theories such as multiverse, many worlds, multiple dimensions, or alternate realities that are beyond physical nature and may even be supernatural. Likewise, science has now been able to look far enough into the atom to see nebulous forces or fields that are beyond material nature and may be supernatural. Scientific studies of human consciousness are using findings from sub-atomic physics to support the fundamental constituent of matter as being something similar to consciousness, information, or intelligence. Is this natural or supernatural? It gets close to what is called deity. Some knowledgeable people say that if such constituent exists, it would be part of nature.

                On the other hand, some knowledgeable people say that these new findings can only be explained as a reality not bounded by our known laws of physics, or as an alternate supernatural reality that may even contain deity. So, the line between naturalism and supernaturalism is obscure and both may be valid for answering ultimate questions about existence.  Anything is possible, but we have to live in the world as it presents itself to us here and now. Reliable explanations are now available for most daily experience providing sensible proximate causes, and an objectively supported supernatural force (or deity) that can provide a sensible distal cause for ultimate concerns. We need naturalism to explain proximate cause and we need supernaturalism to explain distal cause. Supernaturalism can include both phenomena whose cause is natural but not yet known, and phenomena whose cause might be a different reality transcendent to known laws of physics.