Are Supernatural Explanations Invalid?

Last week I ended my post with this:

So what is wrong exactly with a "supernatural" or "spiritual" explanation for the resurrection? Well, I think some people are simply inclined to equate "nature" with "reality," outside of which lies the "supernatural." But this is misleading. If God exists – and that's the underlying issue here – then he is necessarily part of reality (given the modest premise that anything that exists is part of reality). As we have seen, the real problem here is that naturalists, not supernaturalists, are understating the evidence.

Those remarks admittedly call for some elaboration. The following brief set of remarks is not meant to be a definitive answer but more of a conversation starter. However, I do believe there are some preliminary observations that can be made in the interest of clarification.

For starters, to assert that the supernatural lies outside the domain of reality is not just misleading, but fallacious. Specifically the assertion begs the question. This is why I question whether the common atheistic understanding of "metaphysical naturalism" as the belief that "nature is all there is," is useful in the least. Even the more nuanced definitions seem conceptually somewhat empty. Keith Augustine, for example, says, "Fundamentally, naturalism is a metaphysical position about what sorts of causal relations exist – it is the position that every caused event within the natural world has a natural cause."[1] This is slightly better, because it leaves other metaphysical possibilities open, but still not open to investigation or confirmation in principle. Thus it still begs the question when it comes to explanations of phenomena.

But what then is "supernature"? We could begin a reasonable answer by asking in turn, "What is nature?" If the answer we get is "all that exists" or "all that can be experienced or investigated in principle," then we are back to arguing in circles. When we set out to seriously explore the question of God's existence, we are clearly asking whether God exists in reality. If the proposition "God exists" is at least potentially true, and there is evidence for the truth of that proposition, then it seems that there is potentially more to reality than nature as typically understood.

I propose a distinction not between "natural" and "supernatural" but between "natural" and "spiritual." On this view, "spirit" is a reality, even a real substance of sorts, which may be detectable in principle – but not within the four-dimensional boundaries of this universe. Paul the Apostle alluded to something along these lines in presenting the concept of resurrection. Using the distinction between different kinds of "flesh" on the earth (men, fish, birds, etc.) as an analogy, Paul suggests a further distinction between flesh and spirit entities: "So also is the resurrection of the dead…. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:42-44). A body, of course, is to be understood as a real entity.

Keeping in mind again that the observable universe may not exhaust the whole of reality, this all suggests the possibility of real extra-dimensional entities that may be perceived by an equally real but different set of senses belonging to resurrected (spiritual) bodies. Unless the natural universe has inexplicably popped into existence from utter nothingness (non-reality) – which both logic and physics would seem to forbid – the reality of this spiritual dimension seems a viable, perhaps probable and even compelling prospect. Note that in the attempt to explain the origin of the universe and reconcile Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity, physicists advancing String Theory and M-Theory routinely suggest extra-dimensional realities. Extra-dimensional realities, then, may directly affect our four-dimensional universe. Those premises granted, the rest of the argument follows easily: if "extra-dimensional" may be considered roughly equivalent to "extra-natural," and "extra-natural" to "super-natural," then there remains no good reason for asserting that supernatural explanations are invalid.

[1] Keith Augustine, "A Defense of Naturalism" (Master's thesis, University of Maryland, College Park, 2001),


Don McIntosh said…
Edited the conclusion. This

if "supernatural" may be considered roughly equivalent to "spiritual," then there remains no good reason for asserting that supernatural explanations are invalid.

doesn't actually follow from the rest of what I said. As usual, I'm posting during my lunches and breaks from work.
good article Don.I am glad yo take your stab answering a yard question where no right answers really suggest themselves,
Don McIntosh said…
Joe, I do make those suggestions tentatively. But I honestly see no reason to think that the spiritual realm is not somehow perceptible or tangible in another, eternal dimension of reality. In some sense the kingdom of God may even be physical or quasi-physical. The only thing keeping me from stating so outright is a Christian tradition affirming dualism of "physical" and "spiritual." Reading Paul on the resurrection, however, leads me to think that this dualism is probably false. I suppose the sticking point is whether "flesh and blood" – which cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50) – is strictly synonymous with "physical," or tangible, perceptible, etc.
Jason Pratt said…
Might be worth noting that the early Patristics (following suit of Jewish philosophers and rabbis, over-against typical Greco-Roman thinking), insisted that only God, as the fundamental ground of all reality, can exist without some type of body. This was a main push by the early orthodox and proto-orthodox philosophers against their Gnostic and semi-Gnostic opponents, too. They somewhat differed, as far as I can tell, from their Jewish parallels, by taking the route that spiritual bodies were finer, whereas Jewish philosophers treated spirits and spiritual bodies as being more real and more powerful, and denser in many ways, than merely physical bodies. (A concept notably taken up by C. S. Lewis, although I think he was borrowing this from later medieval Christian thought.)

Consequently, when the Patristics talked about flesh and blood being done away with and transformed into spiritual bodies, their key point -- put a little literally -- was that flesh and blood rot and dissolve in mortality! Infused and transformed by spiritual reality, the body cannot suffer corruption but becomes incorruptible.

From a modern scientific perspective, we might say that our bodies are already solidified light / energy (at the atomic and sub-atomic constitution) but that they'll be reorganized into a less or non-entropic form of solid light/energy.

That being said, I've always presented the natural/supernatural distinction, not so much as one between physical and spiritual (much less matter and energy, or various states thereof), but from a substantial ontology so to speak: the supernatural is a level of reality substantially different from the natural, which can introduce effects into the natural level, and upon which the natural may depend for existence.

From that perspective, an atheist could be a supernaturalist: the ground of natural reality is something substantially different than the evident field of Nature, and produces it, but is still not intrinsically active (which would be supernaturalistic theism of some type.)

Anonymous said…

Didn't Paul make the resurrection seem like what some people would call "soul sleep" in 1 Corinthians 15 to please the Pharisees (who believed in soul sleep until the day of the messiah according to what someone told me on another site)?

If he was doing that, it is interesting, because there is another scripture where Paul describes being caught up to the third heaven (he was speaking in the third person). It may have been when he was stoned to death in Lystra and almost died (may have been dead for a time).
Jason Pratt said…
I think I can say with some assurance that, whatever Paul may have done politically to soothe ruffled feathers in Jerusalem, he wasn't interested in pleasing his former fellow Pharisees in his epistles, especially to congregations where he indicates a substantial number of former pagans. {wry g}

That said, I don't know whether Paul testifies one way or another to soul sleep in 1 Cor. He does talk about visionary experiences (although those might actually have been a reference to someone else having what we now call the RevJohn experiences, John the Apostle or Elder or John Mark or whichever John that was), but that might not count one way or another -- I do like your idea that, if it was Paul's own visions (and there are rhetorical suggestions along that line for modesty's sake), it happened after he had been wounded practically to death. (Fighting beasts in Ephesus would be another candidate for that event -- that should have been to the death, and one of the great untold stories of his career is WHAT THE HECK ACTUALLY HAPPENED THERE?!)

He also says somewhere (in one of the Pastorals? to Timothy?) that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord, which would seem to rule him out expecting soul sleep, at least for Christians.

Also: I'd be pretty leery, from experience and study, attaching any solid post-mortem beliefs to Pharisees in the early-mid 1st century, other than bodily resurrection. For one thing, Pharisaism of the time (and for probably also the post-Temple period until the Bar Kochba disaster) was a political party based on the idea that helping Israel stay Torah-true in practice would convince God to send the King Messiah at last to save Israel from oppression by the Romans and finally establish the Day of YHWH. That leaves some scope for a range of beliefs in some other regards.

Also, we know that Jews of the period, both in popular belief and in rabbinic (or proto-rabbinic) teaching, had a wide variety of ideas about what happened to both Jews and Gentiles after death, most of which didn't involve soul sleep, but most of which did involve the yearly Day of Atonement festival and its super-important Temple ritual (which then had to be replaced after 70 CE which also then started some shifts in what could be expected, if anything, about post-mortem atonement and why that might or might not happen.) How the Pharisees synched with that spread of ideas, in pre70s Judaism, whether in Palestine or in the Diaspora, is hard to make out. Josephus is a helpful source of course, but he has a demonstrable tendency to make things more clear-cut than we find in other sources.

Don McIntosh said…
Thanks for the comments Jason. Yes, one of the many insights of Lewis that has stuck with me over the years is his suggestion that our earthbound perspective is generally backwards – that the presently observable world is the "shadow" and the eternal kindgom the "substance." I think Joe, especially, would agree that God is the ultimate grounding of all reality, and therefore requires no bodily supports.

As far as terminology goes, my personal preference for "spiritual" over "supernatural" owes to a couple of factors: First, "spiritual" finds numerous expressions in Scripture, unlike "supernatural." Second, I think "supernatural," even more than "spiritual," has suffered from overuse and abuse. From what I've seen it tends to be associated with superstition as much as theology.
Don McIntosh said…
Hey JB, good question. My first inclination is to say that I don't see much evidence for soul sleep in Scripture, and almost certainly not in 1 Cor 15.

For cultural-historical references along those lines I would happily defer to Jason. :-)

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