The "supernatural" category

by rstarkov2 min read24th Mar 201129 comments

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The term "supernatural" is frequently used in discussions related to skepticism. I am trying to establish the category that people refer to with this term.

All uses of this term appear to imply a separation of concepts and events into two disjoint categories: "natural" and "supernatural". Some examples of things typically classified into "supernatural": God, ghosts, telepathy, telekinesis, aura. Things typically classified as "natural": animals, rocks, talking, earthquake, body temperature.

I will try to follow the advice given in Similarity Clusters and try to establish some verbal hints as to what causes a concept to be classified into either similarity cluster.


One idea I had is the following: anything we expect to be able to experience, if the necessary prerequisites are met, is "natural"; anything we expect to fail to experience even if we try hard is "supernatural". This seems to work quite well on the concepts mentioned above. This works for unlikely events too: a plane crash is not "supernatural" because if I'm at the right place and the right time then I expect to be able to experience it.

It's still a bit weak for exceedingly unlikely events. For example, proton decay has never been witnessed, and we don't know if it can even occur. But "proton decay" is not classified as "supernatural"; rather as a "hypothesis". Telepathy, however, might for all we know be as rare as proton decay (thus being exceedingly hard to confirm experimentally), and yet it's classified into "supernatural". Something is missing from this verbal hint.

But what?


Approaching this from a different perspective, it appears that one can classify "supernatural" as having the property of being "outside of the universe". On further thought, however, this isn't helpful at all: the latter is not so much a verbal hint as a label in itself.

If taken literally, one might argue that all supernatural things therefore don't exist. They are said to be outside the universe, but we can only experience things within the universe, because anything we can experience must be part of the universe, and thus "inside" it. This is quite useless, however, in my opinion: as used by actual people, the category "supernatural" isn't intended to preclude existence. So this doesn't work.


Could it be that the category "supernatural" is actually completely useless, by offering so little information about the things that belong to it that knowing that something is classified as "supernatural" doesn't tell us very much at all?

Thinking about this led me to the idea that perhaps "supernatural" simply means "something that science has shown false or doesn't accept as a valid theory". That is certainly a property I infer about P when told that P belongs to "supernatural".

This is still quite unsatisfactory. It can't be the only property. People explain away God's undetectability by being "supernatural", intending it as a convincing argument - but even those who do things like this wouldn't claim that "not a valid theory" is an argument in favour of God. They must mean something else.

But what?

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From Excluding the Supernatural:

By far the best definition I've ever heard of the supernatural is Richard Carrier's: A "supernatural" explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.

While that's a pretty good definition, I don't think it quite captures the nuances of how the word is used.

With respect to the "ontologically basic" part, that's a fairly abstruse concept for most people, and the intuition I have is people generally decide whether to call proposed entities "supernatural" without thinking very hard about whether such concepts apply. If someone claims to talk to spirits, they may not have any strong opinion on whether the spirits are made of nonmental spirit foam, but saying they're therefore uncertain about whether the spirits are supernatural sounds off to me. Conversely, I can think of positions in the philosophy of mind that it would sound off to call supernatural regardless of whether they appeal to fundamentally mental things. I think it's at least partly just a matter of genre: things can be prototypically supernatural or marginally supernatural like they can be prototypically science fiction or marginally science fiction.

With regard to "mental", it seems to me that word is standing in for a whole class of things that aren't simple and mechanical. An ontologically basic architectural or legal entity sounds like it should qualify as supernatural, as does an ontologically basic dead rat.

Agreed on 'mental' not being a necessary condition. A magical pixie dust used in some new age prosperity ritual would be a purportedly supernatural phenomenon, but there would be nothing mental about that.

The supernatural is that which is believed by its believers to be neither reducible to, nor explainable in terms of, the natural.

Generally, when a person talks about "spirits" they imply the existence of consciousness divorced from a brain (or something similar). This seems to assume "consciousness" as an ontologically basic thing.

Do you disagree, then, that "they may not have any strong opinion on whether the spirits are made of nonmental spirit foam"?

They may not describe themselves as having a strong opinion about that, or even thinking of it in those terms, but I don't see how they could come to the conclusion that spirits exist without the underlying assumption that consciousness is ontologically basic.

With regard to "mental", it seems to me that word is standing in for a whole class of things that aren't simple and mechanical. An ontologically basic architectural or legal entity sounds like it should qualify as supernatural, as does an ontologically basic dead rat.

1) In "Excluding the Supernatural", Eliezer says:

Ultimately, reductionism is just disbelief in fundamentally complicated things.

I think this version of the definition includes more of what we think of as "supernatural" without including anything that we wouldn't. Under this definition, an ontologically basic dead rat would be supernatural, as I think it should be. Of course, this is assuming I have anything like a correct picture of what you mean. I can't really envision an ontologically basic dead rat, but neither can I see what good it would do me to do so.

2) The phrase "ontologically basic dead rat" is surprisingly funny.

Carrier's definition of the supernatural deserves a direct link.

"Magic is just a way of saying 'I don't know.'"

Terry Pratchett, "Nation"

The essence of magic is to do away with underlying mechanisms. ... What makes the elephant disappear is the movement of the wand and the intent of the magician, directly. If there were any intervening processes, it would not be magic but just engineering. As soon as you know how the magician made the elephant disappear, the magic disappears and -- if you started by believing in magic -- the disappointmnent sets in.

William T. Powers (CSGNET mailing list, April 2005)

I wouldn't say it's necessarily mental. But if it's a huge lump of properties that can't be explained by the rules that govern everything else, it would be supernatural. Or it could even be simple, but still have an exception to an otherwise universal rule. For example, in a Tegmark universe governed by the factorial function, finding a 10 could be considered miraculous. In our universe, it could be an object that doesn't cast a shadow, doesn't glow on the underside, and is not transparent.

Also, rstarkov, see my reply in the thread linked above.

These mathy definitions are, of course, for times when "supernatural" isn't just a stand-in for "stop thinking about it!"

Your reply and anonym's are fundamentally right, I believe. To spell it out more, we need to extend the concept of Similarity Clusters to laws. I mean laws as in "natural laws" and perhaps "supernatural laws", not as in rules passed by legislatures. To take the supernaturalists seriously, we have to hypothesize that there are exceptions, perhaps even regular exceptions, to natural laws. Where natural laws conflict with supernatural ones, the hypothesis goes, the supernatural ones triumph. That's what makes them super. By the way, supernatural "laws" might just be descriptions of alleged supernatural properties. E.g., telekinesis is the power to move stuff just by wishing.

Doesn't this just push the puzzle back a step? How do we distinguish natural laws from supernatural ones? By clustering. Natural laws form a tightly knit explanatory framework. For example we can explain lots of chemistry via QM. Natural laws use terms like mass, charge, acceleration. Etc. Supernatural items are claimed not to fit into the same tightly knit explanatory framework. They are described using terms with no apparent relation to mass, charge, acceleration. Etc.

But, let me say where the "ontologically basic mental things" account is onto something. The paradigm examples of supernatural objects and qualities are usually mental. Or if not the paradigm examples, then at least a large and important category. Since it is indeed hard to see how painfulness or the sensation of sweetness relates to mass, charge, acceleration, etc. - especially if one glosses over the difference between epistemic puzzles and metaphysical ones - the mental has long been an attractive zone for claiming that a different constellation of laws are in play.

ETA: I see Manfred beat me to it. I'll leave mine here because my version is a little further out on a limb.

How about "Something that, if it turned out to be true, would lower the social prestige of the group 'scientists'."

It's also often used to mean "not material," or "not obeying the same laws as most stuff we see." So the stuff we see around us is the "natural," and things that don't follow natural law are "supernatural."

I suspect most supernatural beliefs are non-reductable just because they're made up by people and people don't generally think in terms of reductionism. I prefer "magic" form for complicated human-interacting ontologically basic things.

Sounds like a reasonable way of putting it. So a weapon shooting invisible (to the human eye) bullets would be classified as "supernatural" by someone from the stone age, because to them, killing someone requires direct contact with a visible weapon or projectile, that has appreciable travel time. Right?

Although "hard science" would have to be excluded from this, even though it contains lots of stuff that doesn't obey the same laws as most stuff we see.

It's also often used to mean "not material," or "not obeying the same laws as most stuff we see." So the stuff we see around us is the "natural," and things that don't follow natural law are "supernatural."

I think this is the key. Supernatural phenomena can't be defined to obey natural laws; if they did, they would be blatantly impossible. (For a really detailed example of this, see Sean Carroll's blog post Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory.)

So from the negative votes I'm guessing that this is not something you guys find appropriate in "discussion"? It would help me as a newcomer if you also suggested what makes it bad :)

I liked it, and it inspired an interesting conversation. It is a bit rambling, but I for one like the format of going step-by-step through the thought process that inspired the post. Tighten up your posts in the future, but don't feel compelled to lose that feature in doing so. Voted up.

I didn't downvote and it's not an inappropriate topic, but the post is a bit rambling. More thought and editing could allow you to figure out what you're really trying to say, and hence tighten up the post.

I suppose it's not the most concise post I've ever written. Thanks for the feedback!

I think it is quite relevant for LW. Voted up.

Things you might find interesting to pounder the n/sn classification of:

  • FTL travel
  • bigfoot
  • libertarian free will
  • quantum wave function collapse.
  • Mjölnir (thors hammer)
  • BusyBeaver(3^^^3)
  • string theory
  • Atlantis
  • qualia
  • the injustice of an unjust deed

I can understand 'supernatural' in the context of the Game Of Life: the user ('God' if you like) violates the laws of physics (in this case by anomalously switching some cells on or off).

Can't we give pretty much the same definition of 'supernatural' in the real world? (Relative to the 'true laws of physics' whatever they are.)

Perhaps we could say that a supernatural event is one that "increases the algorithmic information content of the universe", though formulating this precisely would require some care.

Of course I'd argue that the game of life is not an isolated universe if one can toggle cells in it, and if you consider the whole lot then there's nothing supernatural about the process of cells being toggled.

But this is a good example. I asked about what others mean by "supernatural" and this sounds very close indeed!

I am not convinced that everyone who uses the term means the same thing -- or even compatible things -- by it, actually.

Some people seem to mean a combination of subtle, unexplained, and sacred... that is, E is a supernatural event if it's hard to notice, they don't know why it happens, and they approach it with awe (rather than, say, with curiosity).

Other people seem to mean inconsistent with natural law. Most of the people who believe the supernatural doesn't exist seem to adopt this meaning, although many people adopt this meaning and believe it has a real referent.

On this site, the idea that the supernatural involves the irreducably mental ("ontologically basic mental entities") is popular; I'm not sold on it myself. For example, if someone told me that they believed in a Law of Karma that caused events to occur in a way that reflects Cosmic Justice, I would understand that to be a belief about the supernatural, but it would not be clear to me that they consider the entities being described either mental or ontologically basic, nor that it matters in either case. (Of course, nothing prevents either of those things from being true.)

The Law of Karma would need to determine which events are concordant with Cosmic Justice and which are not. I suppose your hypothetical friend would agree that the Law of Karma behaves as if there were a god with a sense of Cosmic Justice. So their cosmology is a theist's cosmology except with the "exists" tag removed from all gods.

I'm not sure what Richard Carrier's definition makes of this.

ETA: Looking a second time at this post, it seems clear that Richard Carrier would regard a Law of Karma as a mental property of the universe, even if there is no mind controlling it. Eliezer's interpretation of this definition is more clear.

I guess so?

I mean, I'm really not sure what it means for something to be theism except without any gods, but I suppose that describes my hypothetical friend's cosmology.

Then again, I suppose it describes my cosmology as well.

I mean, I believe the universe is arranged in such a way that (for example) particles attract one another with a force that is proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the square of their distance, but I suppose I would agree (albeit queasily) that the Law of Gravitation behaves as if there were a god with the desire to cause things to attract one another in this way.

I guess.

I suspect I've altogether missed your point.

Ah, I could have been more clear. My point is that "ontologically basic mental things" is shorthand for a more nuanced definition of supernatural which does include your Law of Karma, even though the Law of Karma doesn't talk about disembodied minds.

By this definition, "the Universe computes whether an event is just" is a supernatural hypothesis, but "the Universe computes the inverse square of distance" is not.

I agree that the ability to insert a god into a hypothesis doesn't have much to do with whether the hypothesis was supernatural to begin with.

OK, fair enough.

While I have some understanding of what "ontologically basic mental things" might be (and I am not convinced that "supernatural" is routinely used to mean that), I do not have the vaguest beginnings of a clue what the nuanced definition you are asserting it actually serves as a shorthand for might be, so it's conceivable that I would agree that "supernatural" means it, if I ever did find out what it was.

(I've made a couple of attempts to read the post you link to, but I keep wandering off before I get to the end. IMHO it takes way too long to get to any point worth making.)

I think there is a strict and useful definition of "supernatural" to be had, that suitably reduces the concept.

Take the game of life as an example. In the cell grid, the rules governing individual cells are the laws of physics. Those rules completely define natural phenomenon in that universe. It seems clear to me, then, that the definition of supernatural phenomenon points to operations on patterns of cells, IE, anything that edits the outputs of the natural rules.

For example, "Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation." is natural, while "If glider for x iterations, then pulsar" is supernatural.