Science and the supernatural

Let's examine the claim: Any valid explanation of the universe must be scientific.

This is an increasingly common argument, and is at the root of the evolution vs. creation debate. The proponents of darwinian evolution seem to think that all they need to do is point out that any account of creation is not scientific and thus can be dismissed out of hand. (There are those who try to dress up the creation account with science - but that's another matter). The root of the issue is, is it valid to say that there are not, nor have their ever been any miracluous/supernatural events and so everything in the universe can be explained by science alone?

It could obviously be pointed out that such a statement is intrinsicly atheistic, and so is at odds with the beliefs of many of the greatest scientists of all time: Newton, Maxwell, Einstein... but let's examine this statement with logic alone...

Let's assume for the moment that they are right. And that there is nothing supernatural - not now - not ever. This means that, as they claim, everything that happens must happen for a well defined scientific reason. It may be a reason that scientists do not yet understand, it may be for reasons that are so complicated that they cannot in practice be unravelled, but they are all natural, and within the remit of scientific investigation. Every physical effect has a physical cause and nothing outside of the universe itself is needed by way of an explanation. It sounds like athiestm... because it is - and it has become a very prevalent world view in modern science. But is it consistent?

If every physical effect has a physical cause, then those causes themselves must be effects of prior physical causes - as we are not permitted to entertain any other source of influence. We can think of all the events in the universe like chains of dominoes streching back in time. Each domino falls over because another domino topples into it - cause, effect, cause, effect. Although in practice dominoes may fall over without another domino, this would be caused by gravity and possibly floor vibrations and thus in our analogy would represent another well defined domino/cause. What we are not allowed now, nor at any point in the past, is a domino that falls over without a prior domino - as this would represent an effect without a cause - an event that is not explainable by science - a supernatural event.

Such a world view makes sense, if like Einstein, you believe that the Universe is eternally pre-existent. But no-one believes that any more - even Einstein was convinced by the evidence that the Universe had a beginning.

If the Universe had a beginning, then we run into problems with our domino chains - we can extrapolate them back further and further into the past and so defer the problem, but sooner or later we have to face the inevitable. There must have been a first domino! This is exactly what we have said cannot happen: a cause that does not depend on anything prior for its existence. Something that is outwith the remit of science!

So if believing that "everything can be explained by science" leads you inescapably to acknowledge that there is at least one event that cannot be explained by science then it proves that the original assumption is untenable. There are some things about the universe that cannot be explained by science. The Universe itself is proof of the supernatural.

Those who try to dismiss men of faith as irrational are themselves holding to an irrational worldview!


Ricky Carvel said...

I reject the word 'supernatural'. It is not helpful in the science vs religion debate. Both sides can use it to their advantage.

What is 'natural' and what is 'supernatural'? If you define natural (as I do) as 'everything that is real' (which includes the physical and the non-physical) then there simply is no supernatural.

Why do we (Christians) like to think that God is anything other than natural? (I suppose if you define 'natural' in terms of things that have been 'created' then He must be above that, but that builds an assumption into your definition and skews your argument.)

I'm a believer in free will. If there are two jelly babies lying on a table (a red one and a black one), I believe I have freedom to choose one over the other. I don't simply pick the black one as the end result of a sequence of causes and effects. So somewhere there is a non-physical cause (my decision) which brings about a physical action (which jelly baby I eat). This is not supernatural.

Its the same (on a grander scale) with God. His non-physical decision ('let there be light') resulted in physical action ([insert your view of the origin of all things here]).

When people (especially in this debate) talk about 'science' being able to explain things, they generally mean the big three: physics, chemistry and biology. But probability and statistics are a science too. In probability event A might cause event B, or it might cause event C. Cause and effect isn't as clear cut as some would have you believe. At the quantum level, cause and effect break down anyway.

I believe that there also is a scientific explanation for every process (cause and effect chain) that happens, even if we cannot see the explanation from our current level of understanding. But that does not mean that the explanation cannot include a decision at some point.

Chris HH said...


Re. Supernatural:
I can understand why the word "supernatural" can be a cause for concern. It is a pretty big umbrella that includes a lot of superstition and nonsense. But I use the word in its purest sense: super-natural - beyond what is explainable by natural causes. And in this sense I believe it is the right word.

I don't believe God is limited to acting suernaturally - as creator he is behind everything that is natural too.

Re. Probability:
I think you'll find that statistics and probability feature pretty heavily in physics - they certainly did when I studied them: Thermodynamics, Quantum mechanics, and Chaos theory to name three fields that I studied specifically that are almost entirely based on probabilities.

[As an aside, I think many people misunderstand probability. The number of people who play the lottery is proof of that! Some confuse it with superstition and luck; some see it only as uncertainty - you can't really know anything for sure.

But a probability is an empirical measurement with just as much value as any other. Seeing it only in terms of uncertainty is like saying the glass is half empty. Take a radioactive decay - you only know the probability that any one atom will decay in a give period of time - but this probability gives you BOTH uncertainty AND certainty - this is how on an individual scale a single radioactive decay can be the purest form of random data - but on a macroscopic scale atomic clocks governed by the rate of radioactive decay are the most accurate in the world. Bookies understand probability - the certainty behind uncertainty - that's why they make money.]

Re. Quantum Mechanics:
Whilst quantum theory allows subatomic particles of matter to spring in and out of existence for very short periods of time - it is wrong to assume this means quantum mechanics breaks down the chains of cause and effect. QM is hard for us to get our heads round, (it certainly was for me!) because we are so used to thinking of particles as classical newtonian objects (...and because the maths is so darn hard!)- but if you replace the dominoes with probability wave functions the same principle/analogy still holds even at a quantum level.

Re. Free will:
I think that's an excellent example! You say it's not supernatural... but if a human being is (as you and I both believe) more than just the sum of its parts how can it be otherwise? From a purely atheistic view any free will we may think we have is just an illusion caused by our biochemistry and neural synapses. Could it be that some supernatural events are so normal that we just don't recognise them as such?

Ricky Carvel said...

Here we're wandering into uncertain territory. I think the ability to make a decision (not part of a cause and event chain) is a natural one, you're kind of implying that its supernatural.

The average atheist equates the word "supernatural" with the word "impossible". You cannot appeal to any supernatural cause in a debate with this kind of atheist, because they'll simply hear you saying "this impossible thing happened". On the other hand, many believers will equate the word "supernatural" with "anything God does" (which probably includes the assumption that this is all beyond the reach of science), thus they limit science.

There is little point in using a word which is used in different ways by the different sides in the conversation - it just confuses things.