Does the supernatural – natural distinction collapse?

A common view in Christianity is that God acts ‘super-naturally’. Because God is ‘above’ nature (nature being a creation of God), when God acts it is a ‘super’-natural act, and the act does not obey ‘natural’ laws, as God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ to nature.

To say God is ‘above’ or ‘prior’ is meant in a logical sense, as space or time are aspects of the natural universe (so the standard idea goes) – this is metaphorical language to express something that is difficult to think about. Similarly, to say God created the universe is not to say there was a sequence of events in time, where beforehand the universe did not exist, and then it did. Again, ‘created’ past-tense is meant to reflect a logical sense of priority in understanding nature.

How would one be able to distinguish between something acting according to ‘natural’ principles and something acting according to ‘super-natural’ principles? There are two problems here.

The first is that our knowledge of natural laws is limited. Whatever seems to be non-natural may actually be natural, but just something we don’t understand yet. Since there is a strong inductive argument that can be made to the effect that our understanding of the universe is in the beginning, not near the end, it very well may be that things which occur and seem to surpass natural law are actually adhering to natural law.

If we were to investigate a cause-and-effect situation, and it did not seem to comply with what is believed to be known natural law, then we are left with three major options. 1. We misunderstand the situation, and it actually does comply with known natural law. 2. We are mistaken in some of our views about natural law. 3. There is a non-natural cause in effect.

The question then becomes how to distinguish between situations where 2. applies, and where 3. applies. This leads to the second problem in distinguishing between natural and super-natural acts. If God acts from ‘outside’ of nature, then presumably God doesn’t act capriciously. Rather, there is an order or logic to God’s actions, even if it might be difficult for us to understand them (just as it was difficult for humans to understand various natural laws that are now better understood).

So, even if there are super-natural causes in effect in the universe, there would still be patterns to these. The question would then be how we would distinguish these non-natural patterns (‘laws’) from natural ones?

I think to answer this question would require a detailed concept of how God supposedly acts and why that would be involved in something logically ‘above’ nature. At what juncture would we say this effect comes ‘from’ something ‘outside’ the universe, while this effect does not, outside of the criterion outlined above (i.e., something not complying with what is believed to be known natural law)?

The problem here is that we determine that something exists from its effects. We do not have access, even in cases of supposed natural law, to the acts themselves.

Consider something like lightning. How do we know that the causes and effects are all natural? Because we can describe them coherently as operating with the natural order. Yet, what sort of effects would defy this? It is important to remember that the nature of nature has constantly been revised. Electromagnetic phenomena, for example, at one point in the history of science wouldn’t plausibly have been classified as physical, but then the definition of ‘physical’ changed. And so on.

Take, for example, supposed synchronicities, which are sometimes taken as evidence of God acting (sometimes called ‘providence’, other times ‘miracles’). If we grant that synchronicities occur, and that they defy what are believed to be known natural laws, on what basis would we say they are not natural as opposed to saying they work in accordance with some hitherto poorly understood natural law? Presumably, this basis would have to do with our understanding of something logically prior to the universe. Yet, saying what that might be, without entering into a circular argument (this is attributed to God, God is super-natural, therefore this is super-natural) becomes very difficult.

In the end, my guess is that the debate about natural and super-natural causes is not that important where we are epistemically. Rather, there are patterns in the universe, we can detect them, and we can develop models to explain them. Beginning this should be the focus.

Developing a robust picture of nature, what was ‘before’ nature, and the causal interactions between them, and how that maps onto various effects commonly attributed to God – these are all important questions – but answers to them are not required to begin investigating those effects and developing models.

Most importantly, one should not focus on debating the words, which it seems occupies a large amount of the debate on these issues (for example, if someone believes there can’t be super-natural causes, they won’t bother looking at evidence for God’s effects – this is to mistake concepts, ‘super-natural’ and ‘God’ in this case, for the effects, and hence potentially miss veritable cause-and-effect situations, however the cause is to be understood).

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