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Scientific Study of the Supernatural

In a post a few weeks ago I commented that science could not study the supernatural. Regular commenter Lifewish, who blogs at Metasyntactic, brought up the expected and proper question in a comment:

Please insert the usual question here about why precisely it is that “supernatural” effects wouldn’t be subject to science. Are we using a definition of “natural” that makes this tautological?

Well, yes, it is. If we define science as a method of studying the natural world, and then we define supernatural as something other than part of the natural world, which seems a reasonable plan to me, then “science cannot (or does not) study the supernatural” would be tautological. But at the same time that means that to suggest scientific study of the supernatural, using those definitions, would be just a bit illogical.

Now it would be possible to alter the definitions, though I think that would be a counterproductive plan, since any definition of science that would include study of the supernatural would make it less effective as what it is, while any definition of the supernatural that makes it more natural would, well, make it more natural, and less supernatural.

But Lifewish includes an important word “effects” in his question that makes it more difficult to answer. Can we study the effects of the supernatural through science? To that I have to give a qualified “yes.”

If it happens in the natural world, some method of scientific study should be able to observe it. Thus to take the classical Christian miracle story, the resurrection, were it to happen under the right circumstances, one should be able to observe that a corpse comes back to life (or not) or perhaps that it is eliminated and a new one produced as some interpret 1 Corinthians 15. If a person is healed, science should be able to determine whether they were, in fact, ill to begin with and whether they are now truly no longer ill.

The problem comes in with studying the causes. If there “is” a supernatural, then things that were supernaturally caused outside of the natural order could be observed, but their natural causes couldn’t be discovered through science, even theoretically, because they would not be natural. If they are discovered through scientific processes, by definition they would have to be regarded as natural.

To return to the example of healing, determining that the person was ill, but no longer is, would be quite simple. Determining why is a bit harder. That’s why we have terms such as “spontaneous remission.” But I know of nobody who would argue that all cases of spontaneous remission are divine healings. It is perfectly logical to say simply that this person became well through a process that is unknown. That is what I think science should say about such things. A scientist who is also a believer should be very clear what is science and what is faith. “This person is no longer ill,” can be a scientific statement. “God healed this person,” is not.

This clearly paints an arrow in the direction of “god of the gaps” theology, suggesting that God might be the cause of things whose cause we do not know. And that far, god of the gaps is fine. God might be doing all kinds of things of which we have no knowledge, but lacking knowledge, we cannot be definitive about those things.

I don’t build my theology there, however. My fundamental theological position is that everything that happens in the universe is ultimately an act of God, because God is the “uncaused cause” or the “ground of all being.” I prefer the latter phrase from Paul Tillich as more comprehensive. Now neither of those labels describes the Christian God. That is a limited subset. A deistic view of God fits the bill nicely. But that is nonetheless one jumping off point for my faith. If you convince me that God in no way and at no time intervenes in the universe outside of the course of natural law, I am still a believer in the sense I’ve just stated.

Let’s try an example of a primitive tribe who discover that already prepared food appears at a certain point outside their village at irregular intervals. They don’t know how it gets there, but they make use of it. From our perspective there are many options. It could be a scientific study group providing this food to determine something about the tribe. One might theorize a random space warp connecting the village to someone’s pantry. Silly, I know, but do the villagers have any way to eliminate the option? Or one could imagine the ancestral gods supernaturally providing the food.

Which has happened? Until the villagers have learned how to eliminate all natural options, they don’t know, but they can determine that the food appears. If we call the cause supernatural, we are stating that they can never truly discover the cause, because as far as they go in the natural world, no explanation will be adequate.

It is a definition game. I believe that there is a supernatural, but I also belief that absolute proof is unavailable that the supernatural interferes. Even those things that appear to be miraculous from time to time may well simply have natural explanations so far beyond current science that we haven’t even imagined them.

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  1. I recently read about a scientific study attempting to determine if there was an all knowing God by using quantum effects. Their hypothesis was that, if God looked at the particles in question, it would change their quantum state and thus be revealed. The problem with this hypothesis is that God is constrained by the rules of nature, after all, he wrote them. He can very well exempt himself from any or all of these. So, using natural means to detect the supernatural will fail if the supernatural (in this case, the all knowing God, creater of heaven and earth) allows it to be seen.

    1. But if God was constantly observing every particle, why would He rig the universe to look like He wasn’t? In effect, the universe you describe is a lie: a gigantic illusion cooked up to hide all traces of the deity. Is your God worried about getting sued or something?

      Of course we can’t disprove the conjecture that the universe is a big conspiracy theory cooked up by a paranoid deity. What we can say, though, is that if God went to all that effort then He was doing it the hard way. It would have been far easier to spark off a Big Bang and then simply not get involved. The effects would have been the same too.

      (I should mention that I kinda doubt this experiment was ever performed as stated. Any scientifically-inclined high school student would know the outcome. Was someone maybe using this as a thought experiment?)

  2. OK, so the supernatural isn’t scientifically tractable by definition. And God is supernatural (by this definition) as a matter of personal theology. Have I understood that correctly?

    If so then fair enough. I guess that just leaves me with one question: if God is supernatural then how is it that humans are (allegedly) able to experience His existence?

    Pretty much everything that humans are able to experience en masse can be tied to scientifically-tractable causes. Even shared subjective experiences like love and hate are correlated with the release of particular chemicals in the brain (otherwise they wouldn’t be common to all humans).

    Why would God be the exception here? If He can be so easily detected by large numbers of humans, why can’t we build a “God antenna” that will confirm His existence?

    (I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ Electric Monk here…)

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