Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Natural versus the Supernatural

Once you look into the meaning of “supernatural,” it becomes harder to sustain a distinction between “pure” and “mixed” supernatural beliefs. So I give up that distinction. Still, it is the natural rather than the supernatural beliefs that do most to bring religion into conflict with scientific knowledge.

Francisco Zurbarán, The Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas

In a previous entry (“Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs,” May 20, 2010), I proposed a distinction among three kinds of religious beliefs, which I termed “natural,” “supernatural,” and “mixed,” i.e., beliefs concerning purely natural matters (e.g., that Moses wrote down the words of the Torah in the Sinai desert), beliefs concerning purely supernatural matters (e.g., that God exists), and beliefs concerning matters with both natural and supernatural elements (e.g., that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God). I did not, however, offer any explanation of the terms “natural” and “supernatural,” a deficiency which I would now like to make good.

As a matter of structure and derivation, “supernatural” signifies what is above nature, or what exceeds it. “Above” or “exceeding,” though, in what sense? I will answer this question by a brief excursion into the history of words and concepts. Anyone without the patience for such topics may skip the next section.

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According to the  Oxford English Dictionary, the medieval Latin antecedent of “supernatural,” supernātūrālis, comes from the work of Thomas Aquinas. In a scholarly paper (reference below), Father Andrew Murray analyzes the several contexts in which Thomas uses the term “supernatural”: e.g., the supernatural change of consecrated bread into the body of Christ, the supernatural gift of divine grace, the supernatural good of eternal life, the supernatural knowledge that is prophecy, the supernatural effects that are miracles, and so on. He sums up his findings thus:
What then, does Thomas mean by “supernatural”? The term is used only as an adjective or infrequently as an adverb and then by way of distinction. It means that some power or effect or agent or gift or end or some such is not natural and that it is outside the order of nature on account of direct divine intervention. Thomas is clear, however, that God does not normally intervene in the workings of nature[,] so that the supernatural is not a kind of explanation for things we do not understand. Supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles occur only for the sake of salvation and matters such as the nature of Christ and the sacraments are part of the order of salvation, the free gift of a personal God, who is distinct from the created universe. (5)
So certain things are termed “supernatural” to indicate that they exceed what is possible in nature or by nature alone. Supernatural powers, acts, or occurrences may be deviations from the normal course of nature, as in the case of miracles; or they may be indistinguishable from natural occurrences, as in the case of the Eucharist, in which the body of Christ is indistinguishable from an ordinary wafer. What makes such occurrences supernatural is not that they appear to be contrary to the order of nature, for they may not so appear, i.e., the divine element may be indiscernible to our observation. What matters is that they come from a source superior to nature, namely God.

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The supernatural, then, at least in the original sense of the term, is not necessarily something contrary to nature (though it may be) but rather something belonging to an order superior to nature. It does not merely indicate something that is unexplained or inexplicable in natural terms. Rather, the term implies an order superior to nature, such as a divine order: it does not take its meaning merely from the negation of the word “natural.”

This may be a narrower understanding of the term than is common today. The Wikipedia article “Supernatural” says, at least at the moment of my consulting it, that “the term ‘supernatural’ is often used interchangeably with ‘paranormal’ or ‘preternatural’.” Whatever the sense of the term in popular usage today, Saint Thomas’s sense is more pertinent to the application of the term to religious belief. Religious beliefs are supernatural in the sense with which I am concerned when they pertain to something belonging to an order superior to that of nature, specifically a divine one.

So understood, supernatural religious beliefs are not necessarily in conflict with what we know of nature. In fact, one might argue that purely supernatural beliefs cannot be in conflict with what we know of nature, because they simply do not concern anything in nature. But such a position faces difficulties. Consider, for example, the belief that the natural world is the creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving supreme being—in a word, God. This seems to be a fine example of a purely supernatural belief. But, as philosophers and theologians have recognized for centuries, it is not obvious how this belief is to be squared with the fact that all sorts of evils befall all sentient things, not least of all human beings, including ones of whom it seems inconceivable that they can have done anything to deserve their ill fortune (small children afflicted with terrible and fatal diseases, for instance). Whether or not there is a way to reconcile the existence of God, so conceived, with the existence of evil in the world, there is plainly at least prima facie a conflict between the belief in the former and the recognition of the latter, which suggests that purely supernatural beliefs can in fact conflict with natural facts.

There seem to me to be two possible ways to respond to this difficulty. One would be to restrict the term “purely supernatural belief” to beliefs which have no possible bearing on natural facts. This would preserve the thesis of non-conflict between supernatural beliefs and natural facts, but at the risk of restricting the application of the term “purely supernatural belief” so narrowly as to make it virtually if not actually useless. The other option would be to abandon or modify the threefold scheme that I originally proposed. I am inclined to take the latter way. I will give up the term “purely supernatural belief” and instead simply use the term “supernatural belief” for any belief that has a supernatural element, regardless of whether it also has bearing on natural facts. Instead of a threefold division, then, I offer a merely twofold one comprising natural and supernatural religious beliefs.

I think, though, that I can hold on to my main former contention, namely that natural religious beliefs do more than supernatural ones to bring religious beliefs into conflict with scientific knowledge. What troubles me now is that the thesis seems in danger of collapsing into the virtually trivial assertion that religious belief conflicts with knowledge of nature only when it bears on nature. But I don’t think that it reduces to that. The non-trivial point remains that a large part of religious belief, and specifically a large part of traditional Jewish belief, consists of beliefs about natural fact (by which term I mean to include, as I said before, facts of human history), and that it is these beliefs that bring it into conflict with scientific (including historical) knowledge.


Andrew Murray, “The Spiritual and the Supernatural according to Thomas Aquinas,” paper delivered at the Biennial Conference in Philosophy, Religion and Culture, “The Supernatural,” Catholic Institute of Sydney, 3–4 October 1998 (PDF file).

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