The supernatural (Latin: super- “exceeding” + nature) refers to forces and phenomena which are beyond ordinary scientific understanding. Concepts in the supernatural domain are closely related to concepts in religious spirituality and metaphysics.
The term “supernatural” is often used interchangeably with paranormal or preternatural — the latter typically limited to an adjective for describing abilities which appear to exceed possible bounds.
Supernatural claims assert phenomena beyond the realm of current scientific understanding, and may likewise be in direct conflict with scientific concepts of possibility or plausibility. The supernatural concept is generally identified with religion or other belief systems — though there is much debate as to whether a supernatural is necessary for religion, or that religion is necessary for holding a concept of the supernatural.
Those denying the plausibility of the supernatural typically claim that the only events which cannot be studied scientifically are those which cannot be perceived by any means. If an event claimed to be supernatural really has happened, it can therefore be studied scientifically and is not supernatural.
The supernatural is also a topic in various genres of fiction, such as fantasy and horror. Some examples of supernatural phenomena are miracles and ghosts.
Views on the supernatural
The supernatural as distinct from nature
In this, the most common view, the term supernatural is contrasted with the term natural, which presumes that some events occur according to natural laws, and others do not, because they are caused by forces external to nature. Some believe in forces beyond what is commonly considered natural while others believe all forces can be described as natural.
The supernatural as sovereign over nature
Other people, particularly in Eastern Christianity, deny any distinction between Natural and Supernatural. According to this view, because God is sovereign, all events are directly caused by Him or His creatures, not by impersonal powers of any kind. The only meaningful distinction that remains is events which God causes to happen regularly and events which God causes to happen rarely.
The supernatural as manifested through nature
Another view asserts that God makes himself known through the beauty and order of nature, but is not a personal God concerned with human moral activity, and does not violate the laws of nature which he created.
The supernatural as a higher nature
Others assert that events that appear to us to be supernatural occur according to natural laws which we do not yet understand. In contrast to supernaturalists, they assert that all things operate according to a law of nature. They assert that God, miracles, or other supernatural phenomena are real, verifiable, and part of the laws of nature that we do not yet understand.
The supernatural as a human coping mechanism
Others, particularly among the skeptical academic community, believe that all events have natural and only natural causes. They believe that human beings ascribe supernatural attributes to purely natural events in an attempt to cope with fear and ignorance. Sometimes this belief overlaps with that of the supernatural being of a higher nature.
The supernatural as magic
Since the belief in magic is very old and held a great power over the minds and imagination of earlier generations long before the concept of experimental science, some historians of magic think the supernatural is a surviving form of magic. In the human quest for understanding and survival, magic may be seen as a complement to science. Both science and magic stem from the human imagination, observation and contemplation; but, whereas science requires time, resources, curiosity and flexibility, magic provides an immediate solution, more appealing to the unscientific mind, and requiring few or no resources. There have been many ways in which people have sought to use both magic and science in hopes of empowering humanity for an improvement and longevity of life and to achieve a clearer picture of humanity’s place in the cosmos. In the earliest Christian art (from the 3rd century) Jesus is portrayed as bare faced youth holding a magic wand as a symbol of power, as well as the more familiar figure who is bearded and robed, which became dominate with the development of Christian theology as the centuries passed away and experimental science with its view of a universe governed by natural laws gained favor and authority. Today it is impressive and important to many people to have even claims of the supernatural “proved by science”. (See Lynn Thorndike’s classic study,The History of Magic and Experimental Science, Tarbell Course in Magic, vol 1- Harlan Tarbell, forward and epilogue to Greater Magic- John Northern Hilliard, The Discoverie of Witchcraft- Reginald Scot and the vanishing works of Henry Ridgely Evans, The Old and New Magic, The Spirit World Unmasked, and Hours with Ghosts or 19th Century Witchcraft.) It should be noted there may be a persistent link between supernaturalism, the paranormal, and the desire for immortality.
Arguments in favor of a supernatural reality
Following are some common arguments in support of belief in supernatural phenomena.
* Many proponents note that the complexities and mysteries of the universe cannot yet be explained by naturalistic explanations alone and argue that it is equally reasonable to presume that a Person or Persons controls the unexplained as to presume that no Person does, because neither explanation is verifiable or falsifiable until all phenomena have been explained. Proponents note that it is unlikely that all phenomena will be explained soon. Believers conclude that, for the moment anyway, theistic and atheistic interpretations of unexplained phenomena are on equal intellectual and philosophical footing.
* Proponents argue further that just as science has evolved from weak early attempts to explain natural events (such as spontaneous generation and the doctrine of humors) into a much more credible modern science, religion has evolved from weak early attempts to explain supernatural events (such as animism) into the much more credible modern religions. Therefore, just as the simplistic and erroneous scientific explanations of early humans should not discredit modern science, the simplistic and erroneous religious understandings of early humans should not discredit modern religion.
* Proponents note that many of history’s greatest scientists, who were the products of past societies, including Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel, appear to have believed firmly in a supernatural God behind the universe. Some have claimed the same for the more contemporary Albert Einstein; still, Einstein explicitly denied the existence of the supernatural and an afterlife. (See Einstein’s forward to Man and his Gods by Homer W. Smith, Grosset & Dunlap, N.Y., 1957). However, believers also acknowledge that, because freedom of speech on religious matters is a relatively recent development, it would have been impossible for many of these great scientists, such as Galileo, to express doubts about the existence of a deity, let alone to openly avow agnosticism or atheism.
* Proponents note that the vast majority of humanity, of all races, religions, and ages, believe and have always believed in supernatural phenomena of one form or another.
* Proponents conclude that while some people have invented religions to help them cope with frightening and unexplainable phenomena, others have come to believe in supernatural phenomena through intellectually honest means, having been persuaded by reason, evidence, and experience that the universe cannot be explained by naturalistic explanations alone, but is best understood by acknowledging the supernatural.
* Proponents also note that while some people have denied the existence of supernatural phenomena through intellectually honest means, having been persuaded by reason, evidence, and experience that the supernatural does not exist, others have denied the supernatural out of a deep fear that supernatural forces might actually exist and have a real and tangible impact on our lives, and a fear that the universe might be more complex than their theories allow.
* By its own definition, science is incapable of examining or testing for the existence of the supernatural. Science concerns itself with what can be measured and seen through observation. Thus, proponents of supernatural phenomenon hold that scientific methods would not detect them; therefore the lack of evidence does not matter. Scientists counter that if this is so, then proponents of supernaturalism themselves would be incapable of witnessing any supernatural phenomenon, as human senses themselves operate within the laws of physics and can only sense events occurring in the natural, physical world.
* Applying Occam’s Razor is useful when looking for an explanation of specific events, but the likelihood of a natural or supernatural cause is determined largely by whether a person believes in the supernatural in the first place. Using this argument against the existence of the supernatural is circular. Theological claims generally do not claim or attempt to be scientifically provable.
* Some of modern biblical scholarship is based on the presumption that the supernatural does not exist, or that God is far less involved in the world than commonly supposed (deism). Many theists believe that this biases the results, and is of itself equivalent to a religious position.
However, Jews do not accept the claims made in the Christian New Testament; similarly, Christians do not accept the supernatural claims made by the Qur’an, the sacred book of Islam, and so on. John Drane writes:
Not unrelated to this is a more general philosophical skepticism towards any document whether ancient or modern, that appears to give credence to the possibility of the occurrence of unique, or apparently miraculous happenings. Academic biblical study still generally operates within a mechanistic world-view, according to which the universe is understood as a closed system, operating according to rigidly structured ‘laws of nature’ which are entirely predictable and never deviate. By definition, therefore, the unpredictable cannot happen, and on this view it is inevitable that the gospels should be seen as something other than history, for they do contain accounts of a number of unique happenings which appear to violate the ‘laws of nature’ as set out by Newtonian science. Physics, of course, no longer operates on that paradigm, and the work of more recent theorists has led to the emergence of a far more flexible understanding of what might be possible within the physical universe.
* Proponents of supernaturalism claim that their belief system is more flexible, which allows them more diversity in terms of epistemology (ways of understanding knowledge). For example, scientists accept the findings that the Earth and universe are many billions of years old. Among members of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities, however, there is a wider range of beliefs. Many have a literal interpretation of Genesis, and they believe that the earth and universe are only 6000 years old; other Christians accept the results of science which show the Earth and universe as many billions of years old in terms of age.
* Many religious people claim that these phenomena, being essentially “unnatural,” are not appropriate for scientific study (see also William James, The Variety of Religious Experience. James was convinced Leonora Piper was an authentic spirit medium who contacted the dead. See: Studies in Spiritism by Amy Tanner, Prometheus books, 1994, reprint of 1910 edition and Both Sides of the Veil by Anne Manning Robbins, Boston, Sherman, French & Co, 1909, and The Correspondence of William James #06 by Ignas K. Skrupskelis. A striking example that many times the scientific quest for proof of the supernatural has led to a deterioration of rationality caused by a scientist’s “need” to believe.
* John Drane writes that science is perpetuating “intellectual arrogance” when it does not accept the possibility of supernatural events and miracles: “To say that unique events can never happen, or that the supernatural does not exist, when most people of most ethnic groups at most points in history have claimed otherwise, is merely to perpetuate the intellectual arrogance of previous generations of Western thinkers, and far from providing an answer to the questions raised by history it merely begs larger and more important questions about the nature of Western intellectual culture.” In response, most scientists and historians regard such arguments as fundamentalist religious apologetics, and the pride of being uneducated.
* William Dembski writes:
“The problem with terms like “supernatural” and “supernaturalism” … is that they tacitly presuppose that nature is the fundamental reality and that nature is far less problematic conceptually than anything outside or beyond nature. The “super” in “supernatural” thus has the effect of a negation.
But what if nature is itself a negation or reaction against something else? For the theist (though not for the panentheist of process theology), nature is not a self-subsisting entity but an entirely free act of God. Nature thus becomes a derivative aspect of ultimate reality—an aspect of God’s creation, and not even the whole of God’s creation at that (theists typically ascribe to God the creation of an invisible world that is inhabited among other things by angels). Hence, for the theist attempting to understand nature, God as creator is fundamental, the creation is derivative, and nature as the physical part of creation is still further downstream. 
* C.S. Lewis argued in his book, Miracles, that it is inaccurate to define a miracle as breaking the laws of nature. Instead,
“The great complex event called Nature, and the new particular event introduced into it by the miracle, are related by their common origin in God, and doubtless, if we knew enough, most intricately related in his purpose and design, so that a Nature which had had a different history, and therefore been a different Nature, would have been invaded by different miracles or by none at all.”
Arguments against a supernatural reality
While the exact definition varies, any concept of supernaturality requires that supernatural phenomena are not accessible by the scientific method. Contrary to common prejudices, science is not restricted to laboratory experiments but can be based on any form of experience. If a phenomenon is by definition outside of the realm of science, it therefore cannot be experienced and has by definition no impact on our lives.
Our knowledge of the world is continuously increasing. Some phenomena, once assumed supernatural, can today be explained by scientific theories, while others could be dismissed as myths. Volcanoes were once considered deities and natural calamities the actions of gods and people sacrificed animals or even other people to please their gods. If our current understanding is the gauge of supernaturality, its realm is ever decreasing and very subjective.
Science does not claim that phenomena contradicting our intuitive view of the world are impossible to occur. Scientists study such phenomena every day. In fact, some scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics, are much more counterintuitive than any supernatural concept. But many claimed supernatural phenomena vanish when they are examined closely. There have been, for example, various studies on astrology, most of them with negative results (a single positive result cannot outweigh many negative ones, as it can be expected by mere chance).
Supernaturality is a remnant of a static world view. It comes from a time when the growth of human knowledge was barely noticeable within a human lifetime. The Aristotelian Mechanics were considered valid for more than a thousand years. At that time, human knowledge seemed static and anything exceeding it seemed to be from a different world. But even today some people try to describe the world with unchanging “laws of nature”, declaring that anything beyond this framework is supernatural and inaccessible to human understanding.
If a bush suddenly burst out in flames, and the fire would not consume it, a scientist would not call it supernatural, nor would he deny that this is happening, but he would curiously examine it. Supernatural explanations are lazy, an immediate throwing up of the hands.
Naturalization vs. supernaturalization
Some people believe that supernatural events occur, while others do not. In the process of debate, both sides attempt to discredit the other. People that believe in supernatural events accuse those who do not of naturalizing genuinely supernatural events; people that do not believe in supernatural events accuse who do of supernaturalizing genuinely natural events.
The neologism naturalize, meaning, “to make natural”, is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of denying any supernatural significance to events which another presumes to be supernatural. This perceived process may also be referred to as reductionism or deconstructionism. It rests on the believer’s presumption that supernatural events can and do occur; thus, their description as “natural” by the skeptic is seen as a result of a process of deliberate or unconscious denial of any supernatural significance, thus, “naturalization”.
(This should not be confused with naturalization, the process of voluntarily acquiring citizenship at some time after birth.)
The neologism supernaturalize, meaning “to make supernatural”, is sometimes used to describe the perceived process of ascribing supernatural causes to events which another presumes to be natural. This perceived process may also be referred to as mythification or spiritualization. It rests on the presumption of the skeptic that supernatural events cannot or are unlikely to occur; thus, their description by the believer as supernatural is seen as the result of a process of deliberate or unconscious mysticism, thus, “supernaturalization”.
The subjective nature of the issue
An individual’s interpretation of events depends upon his conscious or unconscious theories toward the nature of the universe. Since each brings a unique set of personal attributes to a situation, and each situation brings different forces to bear, two people may come to completely different conclusions based on identical evidence. Some have suggested that dogmatically held conclusions regarding the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural prevent one from maintaining an “open mind.” Instead, such beliefs supply comfort and satisfy an individual’s need for security. According to this argument, selectivity governs phenomenological reality, meaning that one “screens out” possible explanations simply because they conflict with one’s paradigm and create dissonance. Conformity to the popular dead end conclusions of the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural hinders human creativity and progress, because it limits the scope of curiosity and other alternative explanations one is willing to consider. For example, to make oneself “look good” to others thus avoiding isolation, and perhaps the desire to imitate personal heroes. Generally we criticize and question the picture of reality held by others. It is rare to question one’s own. Rarer still to admit our own is distorted.
Alleged instances of supernaturalization
* In the Hebrew Bible, plagues and other misfortunes are described as signs of God’s anger or vengeance. J. Keir Howard of the Diocese of Wellington Institute of Theology, New Zealand, notes that:
Until there was any proper understanding of the causative factors in disease and the actual disease processes themselves, there was a tendency to see sickness as a result of divine visitations and punishment for wrongdoing. (Oxford Companion to the Bible (1992), entry for “Medicine and the Bible”)
* English Protestants believed that the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a sign of God’s favor for their cause.
* Some fundamentalist American Christians have interpreted the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 11th September, 2001 as a sign of God’s anger at various and sundry things, including secularism.
* Some radical Muslims interpreted the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, whose crew included an Israeli Jew and an Indian-American Hindu, as a sign of God’s anger at America, Israel, and India.
* In Japan the scattering of aggressive Mogul-Korean fleets in 1274 and 1281 was attributed to the 神風 (kamikaze) or divine wind.
Believers respond to the many instances of supernaturalization by arguing that the fact that supernaturalization often occurs does not refute the existence of the supernatural any more than the fact that scientists often make errors refutes the existence of the natural universe; and that the supernatural by its very nature cannot be explored through science, and must therefore be explored through different means, such as spirituality. Nonbelievers counter that the two forms of explanation cannot be equated, because erroneous naturalistic claims, such as those made for the existence of phlogiston or N-rays, are routinely and often rapidly corrected by reference to nature, while erroneous supernaturalistic claims such as the above are impossible to correct by reference to supernature or by any other widely accepted objective means.
* Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather, Boston, 1693
* More Wonders of the Invisible World, Robert Calef, 1700