Science and the ’supernatural’

By Ken Perrott 19/09/2011

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

The non-overlapping magisteria argument

Dr Fishman takes issue with the idea that science can say nothing about the “supernatural,” or be used to evaluate “supernatural” claims. This argument has often been used by opponents of science, eg. the theologically motivated  who argue that science is too restrictive, that it should be “opened up” to “supernatural” explanations.

But it has also been used by those defending science from such religious intrusions. As Fishman says this position argues:

 ”that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims. Thus, science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist. Consequently, to the extent that religion involves supernatural entities or phenomena, there can be no conflict between scientific claims and religious claims.”

On the one hand opponents argue this is a limitation that should be removed from science. On the other hand defenders of science concede the limitation and argue that this enables science and religion to coexist harmoniously – provided they keep to their own “magisteria.” They put a lot of weight on their claim that science only deals with the “natural” world.

The latter approach was implicit in Stephen J. Gould‘s description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (see Overlapping Magisteria?). An approach supported by many, but not all by any means,  scientists, philosophers of science , religious philosophers and theologians. For example Fishman refers to statements of position by two prominent US scientific institutions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). And the arguments against intelligent design (ID) presented by supporters of science, like philosopher Barbara Forrest, at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial. This approach was incorporated into the judgement from this trial which is often quoted by supporters of science.

But the same argument (the inability of science to accommodate the supernatural) is used by opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas and campaign for reincorporation of theological ideas into science. This is a common argument of supporters of ID (see the Wedge document or Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda for a clear example), conservative Christians and many theologians/philosophers of religion.

The latter groups will often use “arguments from authority”, quoting cherry-picked “secular” or “naturalist” philosophers of science  to support their attacks on science and its findings. I believe this makes the use of this “limits of science” argument by supporters of science doubly faulty because it feeds the opponents of science.

The scientific method

Fishman rejects the thesis that science is unable to investigate “supernatural” claims. After all, those advancing “supernatural” phenomena claim these are real – and science investigates reality. The scientific method is ideal for this because:

“if an entity, phenomenon, or effect exists, it is detectable in some way. Either its existence is directly observable or its existence is not directly observable but it causes effects or implies consequences which are directly observable (such as the track made by a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber).”

Proponents of the “supernatural” open up their claims to scientific investigation because:

“In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science. Indeed, many supernatural and paranormal claims have already been investigated by scientists, often at the behest of those intending to validate the supernatural.”

He mentions as examples the effects of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes, paranormal or ’psi’ phenomena, astrology and the so-called ’Bible Code’ prophecies.

“If these hypotheses can legitimately be examined by science, then there is no principled reason why other supernatural claims cannot be so examined as well.”

Surely this has implications for how we present the scientific method. And the argument “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims” appears disingenuous.

And hasn’t science, throughout its history been doing this. Investigating phenomena which have in previous times been seen as “supernatural” and which we now consider “natural:”

“the history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.”

In my experience no scientist ever asks herself if phenomena are “supernatural” or not before undertaking an investigation. The question of pursuing investigation of phenomena revolves more around funding, difficulty, availability of equipment and expertise, etc. Not around a “supernatural”/”natural” judgement. (And how can such a judgement be made at the beginning of an investigation, anyway).

Demands for special treatment

The real problem with “supernatural” claims in science is that their advocates very often demand special treatment. They are not looking for their claims to be tested – just accepted purely on the basis of logical possibility. Or they reject scientific findings with arguments like “science has not yet caught up with homeopathy!”

In fact the usual argument of the proponents of “supernatural” claims is to attempt to discredit existing so-called “naturalist” theories and then argue their alternative “supernatural” ideas should be accept as the default (or fallback) position – no testing required. They assure us their claims are “logically sound.” That seems to be the inevitable mode of argument used by proponents of creationism/ID.


“mere logical possibility is not sufficient. As Kelly Smith notes, ’If we accept the mere possibility of an alternative explanation [i.e., supernatural creationism] as sufficient grounds to abandon an hypothesis [i.e., naturalistic evolution], we will never commit to any hypothesis whatsoever, because the alternatives to be ruled out are limited only by our imaginations.’

True, there have been areas science has avoided in the past – like origins of morality, the nature of consciousness, etc. But these are no longer taboo. And I think we are no longer fooled by the idea that such difficult subjects should be handed over to theology.

Scientists are quite happy to acknowledge that a pehomena may, at this stage, be inexplainable. That some things, in the end, may even be beyond human ability to understand or explain. Human may not have, may never have, the required technological, congitive or reasoning skills. But such arguments should never be used to justify, by default, hypotheses or explanations which rely on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

Implications for science education

I agree that the popular NOMA argument and exclusion of the “supernatural” from science misrepresents the way we do science. And it should not be used to dictate the way we teach science.

The data so far. Credit: xkcd (

It is really only a political tactic – used either by supporters  to defend science against theological intrusions or by opponents to demand theological influence in science.

Scientists should not resort to such an opportunist, and incorrect, argument in their defense against current theological attacks. As Fishman says:

“rejection of the supernatural is not a priori, it is not declared ‘before examining the facts.’ It comes only from a scientific investigation of the evidence  . . . .

ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.”

Fishman discusses the implications and challenges of this issue for science education. It is important that science should “pursue truth, regardless of religious or political sensitivities.” But “science educators face the challenge of maintaining both intellectual integrity and the receptivity of students to potentially controversial scientific material.”

They may be assisted by “presenting a historical perspective on science to provide a framework for understanding how science has arrived at its currently accepted theories about the world.” But honesty and good factual information are important.

“It is clear that teaching critical thinking skills in addition to factual information will not only foster scientific literacy, but may have far reaching beneficial consequences for how students conduct their daily lives and for a society all too often enticed by the paranormal and deceived by potentially dangerous pseudoscientific claims. By fostering critical thinking and a scientific frame of mind there is an increased likelihood that students will adopt a skeptical attitude toward supernatural claims in light of the scientific evidence against them. Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large.”


These few sentences seem to sum things up from the point of view of education:

“Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.”

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