Richard Carrier and The Supernatural

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

I think this is a very neglected topic, and the misunderstanding of which is respsonsible for a lot of problems faced by Christian apologists.

Richard Carrier (of Secular Web fame) has written a pretty good article on the supernatural. I say it's "pretty good" since he obviously put a lot into it, but it brings me back to one of my old soap boxes. Its not really about the supernatural. It's not Carrier's fault, I think the concept itself has been degraded. He takes science and law to task for imposing their own definitions upon the term "supernatural," terms which do not regard the metaphysical. Since "supernatural" is a metaphysical term we should have a metaphysical definition. He also argues that such definitions should take account of the way people use such terms. He presents a plethora of pop culture and science fiction icons, everything from Arthur C. Clark to Harry Potter, everything but Christian theology. He does not touch any theological claims or definitions.

He then loses us by defining the term in this way:

In short, I argue "naturalism" means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, "supernaturalism" means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.

As I summarized in the Carrier-Wanchick debate (and please pardon the dry, technical wording):

Unfortunately, this is not what people mean when they say "supernatural" nor does it have anything to do with metaphysics. It's not historically the way the term has been used. More important than metaphysics is theology, because this is primarily a theological term. While I agree that we should take the public use of a term into account, when we have a specialized term that is primarily the property of an academic discipline such as theology, we should consult the history of the term as well as the special to use to which it has been put.

The term suffers from a well known symptom; he thinks "Super" as the prefix would make supernature the opposite of nature. So starting from this juncture, the assumption that these diametrical opposites is symptomatic of what has happened in the degrading of the term in the first place. He then uses his own philosophical hobby horse to define "nature" and thus defining "supernature" (a term he doesn't use, but the proper term nonetheless) is just a matter of advancing the opposite concept as the definition. But "Super" doesn't mean opposition nor does it mean opposite, nor does it mean immaterial, way out, or imaginary. it means "above," "over" or "superior." What this means for defining the term I'll get to in a moment.

Carrier goes on to illustrate the way the term is used, in his eyes, by talking about faries and demons and the force in Star Wars without ever realizing that most of that is not defined as supernatural. I don't recall a line in the movie saying "use the force, Luke,... it's supernatural."

I have previously illustrated my own understanding of supernatural which excludes this kind of phenomena, i.e., the faries and so forth. That was published on this blog, so I'll repeat it here.

I have several pages about the supernatural on Doxa.


The problem in all these discussions about the supernatural is that we are dealing with a degraded concept. The notion of "Supernatural" is a misnomer to begin with, because modern people construe the idea as another place, an actual location that you can go to. It's the unseen invisible world that is filled with ghosts and magic and so forth. It's in the realm where God can heaven are, we supposed. But what they don't realize is that this is the watered down, dilapitated concept. It's not even understood well by Christians because it was destroyed in the reformation.

The term "supernatural" comes from the term "supernauturalator" or "Supernature." Dyonisus the Areogopite (around 500 AD) began talking of God as the supernaturalator, meaning that God's higher nature was the telos toward which our "lower" natures were drawn. St. Augustine has spoken of Divine nature as "Supernature" or the higher form of nature, but that is speaking of nature in you, like human nature and divine nature.

In the begining the issue was not a place, "the realm of the supernatural" but the issue was the nature inside a man -- human nature vs. divine nature. The supernatural was divine nature that drew the human up to to itself and vivified it with the power (dunimos) to live a holy life. This is the sort of thing Paul was talking about when he said "when I am weak I am strong" or "we have this treasure in earthen vessels". The weak human nature which can't resist sin is transformed by the power of the Godly nature, through the spirit and becomes strong enough to reisist sin, to be self sacrificing, to die for others, etc., etc.

This was the "supernatural" prior to the reformation. It was tied in with the sacraments and the mass. That's partly why the Protestants would rebel against it. St. Augustine (late 300s to early 400s AD) spoke of Christians not hating rocks and trees in answer to the assertion that Christians didn't like nature. But the extension of the natural world as "nature" didn't come until later. The idea of "the natural" was at first based upon the idea of human nature, of biological life, life form life, that's what the Latin natura is about.

Prior to the reformation Christian theologians did not see the supernatural as a separate reality, an invisible realm, or a place where God dwells that we can't see. After the reformation reality was bifurcated. Now there came to be two realms juxtaposed to each other. The realm of Supernature is related to that of Grace and is holy and sacred, but the early realm is "natural" and bad it's mired in sin and natural urges.

But all of that represents a degraded form of thinking after going through the mill of the Protestant Catholic split. The basic split is charactarized by rationalism vs fedeism. The Catholics are rationalists, because they believe God is motivated by divine purpose and wisdom, the Protestants were fideists, meaning that they held faith alone apart form reason because God is motived by will and sheer acceptance, the desire to prove soverignty above all else.

The rationalistic view offered a single harmony, a harmonous reality, governed by God's reasoned nature and orchestrated in a multifarious ways. This single reality contained a two-sided nature, or a mutli-facets, but it was one harmonious reality in which human nature was rejuvenated thorugh divine nature. But the Protestant view left Christian theology with two warring realities -- that which is removed from our empirical knowledge and that in which we live.

The true Christian view of the supernatural doesn't see the two realms as juxtaposed but as one reality in which the natural moves toward its ground and end in divine nature. It is this tendency to move toward the ground end that produces miracles. A miracle is merely nature bending toward the higher aspect of Supernature.

But with the Protestant division between divine sovereignty, acceptance and will motivating the universe we mistake univocity and equivocity for nature and supernature. We think nature and supernature are not alike, that they are at war, so difference marks the relationship of the two. But to make the Suepernatural more available they stress some aspect of nature and put it over against the rest of nature and pretend that makes it supernatural, this is univocity, it's the same. So will and acceptation, sovereignty, God has to prove that he is in charge, these are all aspects of univocity.

It's the natural extension of this bifurcation that sets up two realms and sees nature as "everything that exits" or "all of mateiral reality" that sets up the atheist idea that supernatural is unnecessary and doesn't exist.

The Medieval Christian doctrine of the supernatural has long been misconstrued as a dualistic denigration of nature, opposed to scientific thinking. The concept of supernature, however, is not a dualism in the sense of denigrading nature or of pitting against each other the "alien" relams of spirit and matter. The Christian ontology of the supernatural bound together the realm of nature and the realm of Grace, immanent and transcendent, in a unity of creative wisdom and purpose, which gave theological significance to the natural world. While the doctrine of supernature was at times understood in a dualistic fashion, ultimately, the unity it offered played a positive role in the development of scientific thinking, because it made nature meaningful to the Medieval mind. Its dissolution came, not because supernatural thinking opposed scientific thinking, but because culture came to value nature in a different manner, and the old valuation no longer served the purpose of scientific thinking. An understanding of the notion of supernature is essential to an understanding of the attitudes in Western culture toward nature, and to an understanding of the cultural transition to science as an epistemic authority.

The ontology of supernature assumes that the natural participates in the supernatural in an ordered relation of means and immediate ends, with reference to their ultimate ends. The supernatural is the ground and end of the natural; the realm of nature and the realm of Grace are bound up in a harmonious relation. The Ptolemaic system explained the physical lay-out of the universe, supernature explained its theological relation to God. The great chain of being separated the ranking of creatures in relation to creator. The supernatural ontology is, therefore, sperate from but related to cosmologies. This ontology stands behind most forms of pre-reformation theology, and it implies an exaltation of nature, rather than denigration. This talk of two realms seems to imply a dualism, yet, it is not a metaphysical dualism, not a dualism of opposition, but as Fairweather points out, "the essential structure of the Christian faith has a real two-sidedness about it, which may at first lead the unwary into dualism, and then to resolve ... an exclusive emphasis on one or the other severed elements of a complete Christianity...such a dissolution is inevitable once we lose our awareness of that ordered relation of the human and the divine, the immanent and the transcendent, which the Gospel assumes." Yet, it is this "two-sidedness" which leads unwary historians of into dualism.

In his famous 1967 article, "The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Lynn White argued that the Christian belief of the Imago Dei created "a dualism of man and nature;" "man shares in God's transcendence of nature." This notion replaced pagan animism, it removed the "sacred" from the natural world, and with it, inhibitions against exploiting nature. Moreover, by the 12th century, nature became a source of revelation through natural theology. In the Latin West, where action prevailed over contemplation, natural theology ceased to be the decoding of natural symbols of the divine and became instead an attempt to understand God through decerning the operation of creation. Western technology flourished, surpassing even that of Islamic culture (although they still led in theoretical pursuits). Thus, White argues, medieval theology did allow science to grow, but at the ultimate expense of the environment.

The insights of feminist scholarship, however, suggest an even more subtle argument for the denigration of nature. Feminist theologian, Rosemary Radford Ruther, argued that there is an identification between the female and nature, the male and transcendence. Women have been disvalued historically through the association between female sexuality and the "baseness" of nature. Londa Schiebinger, calls attention to the fact that the Judeo-Christian cosmology placed women in a subordinate position. Gender was more fundamental than biological sex, and it was a cosmological principle, "...Men and women were carefully placed in the great chain of being--their positions were defined relative to plants, animals, and God." The subordination of women was predicated upon their position in nature. "Male" and "Female represented dualistic cosmological principles penetrating all of nature, principles of which sexual organs were only one aspect. One might suspect that the place of women on the great chain of being is indicative of the true status of nature itself in Christian ontology; an overt denigration of women indicates a covert denigration of nature.

The effect of bad definition

Carrier sets up a false definition of "supernatural." Now he doesn't say "I am attacking the Christian view." But we all know that Sec Web posters will be using it for years to come and act as though they have destroyed Christianity. Christianity is a major source of understanding about the Supernatural, thus any view that doesn't take into account the Christian view point is missing a major aspect of the topic. Carrier's views are woefully inadequate in terms of Christian theology. Let's examine his summary and see what he thinks he's accomplished:

Many naturalists have a poor conception of how to define naturalism or the supernatural. They might know it when they see it, but when they try to capture in words what exactly it is they are talking about, they often come up with a badly worded travesty. I've done what little I can to remedy this by developing and testing a precise definition of naturalism and the supernatural, providing a sensible and usable natural-supernatural distinction, which also happens to align adequately well with how people use these words in practice (as I believe our terminology ought to do as much as possible). And now I have amplified my past work on this by surveying numerous hypothetical examples of how my proposed distinctions can be applied.

Unfortunately what he's really done is to assume that the prefix "super" means "anti" so natural means non mental reality then supernatural must mean mental reality. He then goes about the task of trying to switch this useless dichotomy in place of the languishing and degraded concept of supernatural that is the dregs of the fall out from the reformation.

In defining the words "natural" and "supernatural" as I do, I differ from the legal and science community, as exemplified most recently in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. There, Judge Jones was bound by legal principles to follow case precedent and the professional standards of established industries. Following the 1982 McLean decision he found the courts had defined "supernatural intervention" as intervention that "cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable." Jones further cited the official statement of the National Academy of Sciences, which declares "claims of supernatural intervention...are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science." Thus we see the same trend in both the legal and scientific communities, to veer away from metaphysical distinctions and in favor of purely epistemological ones, but as my articles, and now examples, have shown, this does not track the real-world use of the word at all, which can tend to no good.
He is right on this point.

These concepts, testability and explainability in the face of naturalism are the degraded leftovers of the real issue. But what he doesn't see is that this dichotomy, which really stems from the Reformation/Renaissance notions of acceptation and autonomy, are actually setting up the dichotomy that he makes which is to place mental over against the non-mental. He's right that the definition must be a metaphysical one, but then the substitutes for metaphysics a cheap concept devoid of any real metaphysical import. The real concept, as pointed out in part 1, is that Supernature is the power of God to vivify and raise nature to a higher level. a broader and more theological definition would be "the ground and end of the natural." The idea that supernatural is opposed to natural or is somehow its opposition is the dregs of the concept and stems from the Renaissance notion of autonomy.

I think the legal and scientific communities are on a bad track with this (hence the barely coherent discussion of the supernatural in Wikipedia), especially since the same point can be made without abusing the word "supernatural." It is enough to say, for example, that creationism isn't science, not because it is supernatural, but simply because it is untestable (assuming you can prove it is). There is no need to conflate the two.

Unfortunately Carrier does nothing to improve the situation and he won't even listen. He doesn't even care that he has hold of the wrong idea.

Though I understand their reasons for wanting to keep metaphysics out of it (since both enterprises are more fundamentally epistemological), I disagree with their attempted solution of co-opting and changing the meaning of a popular word. That's the wrong way to go about it. Hence I believe a paradigm shift is needed in those communities regarding how the word "supernatural" is defined and applied. Both law and science must get back in line with ordinary English and real-world language, ideas, and concerns.


*Kandensky was one of the great artists of the 20th century. He was a nominal Chrisian and a mystic who took spirituality seriously in his art. For some great Kandensky art go Here


Doctor Logic said…

I don't much like Carrier's definition of the supernatural. (Blogger is down, but I'm going from your quotes.)

However, I'm afraid I like your definition even less. Your definition is poetic, and leaves me with no way to identify what is supernatural. I realize that this may be your point, but eventually, you're going to run into a conflict.

For example, naturalism shows that there is an airtight case against libertarian free will. You will then try to use supernaturalism to bypass the airtight case against libertarian free will. But then supernaturalism simply becomes a rejection of natural law and/or logic. That leads you to a definition of supernaturalism that means "not subject to law and/or logic."

In other words, the definition should come from what the supernatural is used to justify.

You say:

The real concept, as pointed out in part 1, is that Supernature is the power of God to vivify and raise nature to a higher level.

What does this mean? I don't think it means anything at all. What experience would tell me that a natural system is just natural versus being raised to a higher level?

Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

The Bogus Gandhi Quote

Discussing Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Revamping and New Articles at the CADRE Site

Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?

A Botched Abortion Shows the Lies of Pro-Choice Proponents

Jewish writings and a change in the Temple at the time of the Death of Jesus

Tillich, part 2: What does it mean to say "God is Being Itself?"

The Folded Napkin Legend