Roughly speaking, there are two ways of looking at the “big picture” of life, two basic worldviews—which we commonly call the natural and the supernatural. At first glance the difference seems clear. One says everything that exists is natural, the other that there exists something—or some things—beyond what is natural. But what, exactly, does the word “natural” mean? When we try to pin it down, we run into difficulty.
One way of identifying the “natural” is to focus on the source of our knowledge. Whatever we can detect through our senses (or extensions of our senses) is “natural”—anything else is “supernatural.” Following this, the method of science reveals nature; everything else is supernatural.
Yet this distinction is not as clean as it needs to be. For one thing, it doesn’t allow us to identify whether some proposed entity is natural or supernatural until we know where science will take us—and we may not know that for hundreds or thousands of years, if ever. Because the sciences are empirical, we can never be certain of the conclusions (or even the scope) of scientific knowledge centuries hence. In short, this approach leaves us with a distinction between natural and unnatural which is undefinable to the degree that current science is unfinished and fallible. And like it or not, science will always be unfinished and fallible.
Methods of Knowing
As an alternative, we might try to focus less on what is or is not natural, and more on the corresponding method of knowing. Compared to religious revelation, the scientific method is dramatically more reliable—more useful—at uncovering the nature of reality. Yet how do we know that some things supernaturalists believe in today won’t eventually be discovered by scientists as natural phenomena tomorrow? In honesty, we don’t. The best we can assert is that the supernatural approach is flawed—you can’t depend on it. Occasionally it might luck out, but it’s dramatically more likely that it will not.
But there may be another way to look at the natural versus supernatural debate. Supernatural advocates claim that there is an intelligence or consciousness outside of us. And not just outside of us, but outside of any species of animal or plant on any imaginable planet in the universe. Perhaps better put, they believe in the existence of disembodied consciousness and/or disembodied intelligence.* The supernatural method of knowing—religious revelation—involves (so it is claimed) receiving knowledge directly from this disembodied intelligence or consciousness.
With this, the distinction of method becomes clearer. One method is empirical, the other not. The supernatural method doesn’t rely on the hard work of science but on direct reception from disembodied intelligence. Imagine a background intelligence pervading the universe from the moment of its creation, much like scientists speak of the background radiation left over from the big bang. But whereas it takes hard work and carefully calibrated instruments to detect the background radiation, detection of supernatural background intelligence or consciousness is open to any and all, and requires little more than intellectual laziness. The result is that many religious people claim that God speaks to them directly, or that a particular book contains the words of their preferred disembodied intelligence, or that they can mystically perceived the disembodied consciousness in their own consciousness.
What can advocates of naturalism say about this, other than that it is intellectually lazy? Bear in mind that the fact that an approach comes easy or appeals to human lassitude does not make it flawed or render its results incorrect.
For one thing, we can say that the scientific and the revelatory methods of knowledge differ dramatically from each other in their reliability. But that is not the only difference between them.
One method has proven to be reliable in allowing us to engage and manipulate the natural world (even if we can’t exactly pin down what “natural” means). It begins and ends as a method for knowing, one which has been (and continually is being) refined for reliability. The other began not as a method but as an assumption of knowledge—specifically the “knowledge” that disembodied intelligence/consciousness actually exists.
In short, science did not begin as a worldview, but as a method for reliably discovering ways to consistently manipulate the world. We call the world so manipulated the “natural” world partly (or perhaps primarily) because the scientific method is incapable of revealing anything useful about disembodied (supernatural) intelligence or consciousness. What makes something “supernatural” may simply be that it lies outside the purview of science. What makes something “natural” simply that the scientific method “works” for it.
From this we can see that advocates of supernaturalism may have a counter to the claim that religious revelation is dramatically less reliable than the method of science. It is less reliable, they can argue, not because its method is flawed but because its subject is so inscrutable. The scientific method, they might argue, fails us even more completely than personal revelation when it comes to the primordial disembodied consciousness. Science detects nothing; revelation at least detects something, even if most (or nearly all) of its detections are false positives. And revelation has some kind of logical rationale: if disembodied consciousness exists, what better tool than our own consciousness to detect it? Nothing else—no non-conscious instruments—could possibly do the trick.
I think we are getting somewhere. The real disagreement between the advocates of naturalism and supernaturalism is not as much about method as we have assumed. There is no reason for supernaturalists not to embrace the methods of science when it comes to things natural. But science doesn’t work with the supernatural—and for the most part both sides agree with this.
Naturalists agree because they see supernatural claims as untestable, or about something that simply has not been (and probably never will be) proven to exist.
Supernaturalists also agree, but take it from a different point of view. As they see it, science only works for natural—that is, embodied—things. Behind the natural world is the one sort of thing scientists are incapable of studying, but that fact doesn’t mean that disembodied intelligence is not there—only that scientific method isn’t the right tool for studying it.
A Natural Response
How is the advocate of naturalism to reply?
I think we can begin by reframing the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism as a debate about the nature and history of intelligence and consciousness. The advocate of naturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness are brain-based phenomena, and made their appearance in the universe over the course of evolution of species on earth and (probably) other planets. In contrast, the advocate of supernaturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness can be disembodied and pre-exist the formation of the physical universe.
One says matter existed before mind, the other says mind existed before matter.
Framing the debate this way allows us to disentangle worldview from method, and that is useful because it then becomes possible to move the conversation forward. So long as advocates of each respective worldview reject the other side’s method of knowing, discussion can go nowhere. This is because rejecting everything but the scientific method is tantamount to rejecting supernaturalism, since what science can study defines natural. On the other hand, embracing religious revelation is tantamount to embracing supernaturalism since it presumes a disembodied source of revelation.
As a method of knowing, revelation has a fatal flaw—it is based on direct interactions with disembodied consciousness, and therefore the knowledge revealed is unavoidably hidden and personal. Any method for knowing disembodied consciousness by direct revelation is necessarily going to be private rather than public. If private revelations were in agreement, this would not be a serious problem. But they never seem to be. And there is no way to broker the differences, other than violence. The result is that we have more religious sects than we have nations. Even within a sect, there is often substantial disagreement from individual to individual.
For this reason, revelation is useless for open inquiry. What is needed is a broader intellectual method—one that embraces scientific method but can step outside the natural to address supernatural postulates in a rational and intelligent way without having to resort to claims of revelation.
Theology doesn’t fit the bill—unless if we limit it strictly to “natural theology.” Yet the name itself, natural theology, shows that it assumes supernaturalism as starting point. In contrast, atheology can be thought of as an equivalent which assumes naturalism as a starting point. One might argue that both follow the same common rules of rationality and logic, but bear different names simply because their practitioners have reached different conclusions or begin with different worldviews. If this be so, then we have agreement, not on assumptions or conclusions, but on approach: these “common rules of rationality and logic.”
In other words, we can all agree on the basic rules of philosophical inquiry. That is an important starting point. But sorting out worldviews is not something that should be or can be relegated to philosophers. It is something we all would profit from doing. The inquiry needs to be engaged at a level and in a manner more practical and less arcane than philosophy as practiced today in academia. Otherwise, the worldview discussion becomes inaccessible to most people. And it must not ignore scientific knowledge.
With this in mind we might ask, how do intelligent people go about deciding which of two disparate and conflicting worldviews best fits the reality around them? The ideal approach is to begin with no preference or assumptions. One should objectively study natural theology and atheology in turn in order to understand the respective supernatural and natural worldviews, and only afterwards come to a judgment about which one provides the more coherent worldview.
But in real life most of us begin with an allegiance to one side of the question. That makes objectivity difficult. But there is a process intelligent people use to ameliorate their biases, and it begins with engaging the issue from your opponent’s point of view. This means temporarily suspending your own beliefs and disbeliefs (much as we do when reading a novel or watching a movie) in order to see the world momentarily from the other side.
Like trying on clothing, we should try on worldviews. Only then can we see what fits.
* When I use the terms “disembodied intelligence” and “disembodied consciousness” I don’t mean that either must be singular. Souls are also disembodied consciousnesses, according to most religious people. This makes it clear that at heart what distinguishes supernaturalists from naturalists is the question of whether consciousness or intelligence can be disembodied.
It is my belief that this is a question that can be scientifically addressed. For example, if intelligence and consciousness can be demonstrated to be brain phenomena, then the question is essentially settled. There is also the historical question—when does intelligence/consciousness enter the picture of existence? Is it beforehand, or did it evolve into existence with brains. Is there evidence of intelligence or consciousness before brains evolved? That ought addressable by science. It is, after all, a factual question.
Scientific answers to the above may not be the final word. But they will help clarify what we likely are as human beings. Are we minds who happen (at least now) to possess bodies? Or are we bodies which happen to have evolved minds? Should we define ourselves as essentially body, or as essentially mind, or as an indivisible combination?