Daily Archives: October 20, 2011

The Existence of the Supernatural

I do not believe in the existence of the supernatural. Of course, I can't say with 100% certainty that the supernatural doesn't exist, but there is a high probability that the supernatural doesn't exist. So while I don't quite claim to be a philosophical or ontological naturalist, I think I might best fall under the category of epistemic naturalist. Meaning, that I think the only things we can know to a reasonable degree are things that exist naturally. This would be a step up from methodological naturalism, which is the process for doing science, yet a step below full blown ontological naturalism.
I'm also trying to think more like a Bayesian, so, again, because I talk about the probability of the supernatural, this is a claim about epistemic certainty and not ontological certainty (if that even makes sense). 
My biggest beef with the supernatural is that appealing to it never helps anyone understand any phenomenon any better than they did before positing the supernatural. Appealing to the supernatural is a horrible explanation for just about anything you can imagine.
What Makes A Good Explanation?
Have you ever sat down and tried to come up with what exactly constitutes a good explanation for something? For example from my own line of work in software engineering: Let's say some user contacts me and claims that there is a problem with the software I'm in charge of. Surely, the “correct” answer for why there is a problem with the software is “there is something wrong with the code”. But this is a superficial explanation. Again, even if it is the correct answer, it is still not a very good explanation of the problem.
So the first thing I do is try to reproduce the problem. So when explaining to my management what the cause of the problem is, it would be a pretty good start for explaining it if I can reproduce the problem (and further ahead when I can test the solution).

Can supernatural explanations be repeated or reproduced? Or even tested? Of course not.
Next, when explaining to my management the solution, I should be able to explain the mechanism for what caused the problem. Again, superficially, the “mechanism” would be “there is something wrong with the code”. But for it to be a good explanation, it should have a detailed description of what parts of code are interacting (or not interacting) with other parts of the code to cause the problem. So the good explanation would be something like “function getDLL() is calling the xyz.dll in Windows to do process abc yet this dll only exists in Windows Vista and not in Windows XP”.
Can you do the same with supernatural explanations? Of course not.
A good explanation should also fit with our background knowledge. As programmers, we know that things can go kaput if some code you wrote can only function if the components of the operating system you're coding on are actually on the box it's running on. It's happened before, and chances are it can happen again. Do supernatural explanations fit our background knowledge? You might think “well yeah, because the vast majority of humanity has claimed interactions with the supernatural” but this doesn't count as “background knowledge”. This would fit more under the rubric of old wives tales or traditions. No, actual knowledge in this case would be tried and true rigorous knowledge.
Due to entropy and other laws of thermodynamics, the existence of supernatural beings goes completely against our more rigorous background knowledge. For example, just sitting in your chair thinking and reading this blog post, you are using energy. Moreover, you are releasing the “waste” of used energy in the form of heat. Any living being that thinks or any object that moves around in any fashion – any being that uses energy – will emit some heat as the result of using energy. This means, that if supernatural beings are moving around and interacting with our world (using energy), we should see their heat signatures as they interact with our world. This does not happen, so there must be some sort of disconnect. As it stands now, supernatural beings break every law of thermodynamics. Which is especially pernicious since they are supposed to be beings of pure energy. We have no explanation for where they get their energy from and where their “unusable” energy is emitted to.

Basically, all supernatural beings as they are currently conceived are perpetual motion machines. Do perpetual motion machines fit with our background knowledge? Of course not.
Since supernatural beings, as they are currently described, are perpetual motion machines, you would have to posit some other hypothesis that accounts for them breaking all laws of thermodynamics. And this brings us to another hallmark of good (or very bad) explanations. Good explanations appeal to less amounts of untested hypotheses than bad explanations. So for my code troubleshooting example, if I posited some sort of wacky ghost-in-the-machine sort of problem for what's causing the software to malfunction, and then to support the ghost-in-the-machine I posited another hypothetical, this would be less likely to be true than not appealing to those hypothetical explanations altogether.
In order to believe that your supernatural encounter actually occured to the exception of any other explanation for the experience, there are a whole bunch of other assumptions that need to be true on order to validate the existence of the supernatural. Each one of these hypotheses has not been tested, so they remain hypothetical. Because of this, the more hypotheticals you use to undergrid your belief, the less likely it is that your initial belief is correct.
As an example, we can use a fair coin toss. What is the probability of getting a heads on the first flip of a coin? 50%. What about flipping two heads in a row? This then becomes 50% * 50% which is 25%. Three heads in a row? 50%*50%*50%, which is 12.5%. As you continue to add uncertainties to undergrid previous uncertainties, the less likely it is that your original hypothetical is true.

For the supernatural, you would have to posit some other mechanism or laws of physics to account for describing supernatural beings like perpetual motion machines. So, for supernatural explanations, we might start off fair with a probability of the existence of perpetual motions machines to be 50%, just like a fair coin. Again, to be fair, maybe this second hypothesis of other laws of physics has a 50% chance of being correct. This means that your initial supernatural explanation now has a 25% chance of being correct since both hypotheses have to be true. But then you have to explain why this second set of laws of physics don't interact with our own world to the exception of supernatural beings. Now we might stack another 50% likelihood to explain this one. Now your original contention about the supernatural is at 12.5%.
Of course, once you get more specific about your definition of the supernatural, adding more caveats, you keep stacking hypotheses. This subjects your initial explanation to the law of diminishing returns. Just three unfounded hypotheses – when each individually has a 50% chance of being correct – will make the original hypothesis with the original 50% chance of being correct now only have a 12.5% chance of being correct. This is because all three have to be correct in order for the original one to be correct. Much like flipping a coin three times in a row and getting heads depends on the first two flips being “true”. The coin toss example brings us back to the testing criterion. Unless we can test some hypothesis, it can never go beyond its initial uncertainty. But we can test a coin flip.

So does appealing to the supernatural make less use of as of yet unconfirmed hypotheses? Nope.
There are more examples of what constitudes a good explanation for something. See Luke's post on Common Sense Atheism. I think that appealing to the supernatural fails all of the indicators listed on Luke's blog, and I'm pretty sure that there can be more criteria for what constitutes a good explanation for something. I do know one thing, though… if I explained things in my job the way that those who appeal to the supernatural do, I would quickly be out of one. This is why I cannot accept the existence of the supernatural; at least until supernatural explanations start fulfilling more of these criteria for what makes a good explanation.

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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in Bayes

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