A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Crossing Over With Tobe


Many people hold the view that if God exists, then he is supernatural and, therefore, beyond the realm of science – which can only study the natural – to discuss. The same could be said of anything supernatural, from ghosts to telepathy; if science can study it then it is no longer supernatural. It is, quite simply, natural. Many believers use this line of reasoning as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, thinking that it forms a protective shield for their beliefs against the scrutiny science would apply. They see it as a limitation of science and rationalism, and that their beliefs are above them.

The argument is flawed and ultimately self-defeating. Science can only study the empirical world, and our senses are themselves empirical. If science can only study the natural, human beings can only experience the natural.

A commonly heard phrase can help us understand this more clearly: “I’ve just seen a ghost”. Excuse me? You’ve just seen a ghost? With your eyes? How exactly would that work? A ghost is, by all common definitions, supernatural. Our eyes are sense organs that detect light waves and distinguish the varying frequencies to make us aware of our surroundings. They detect only the natural. If you think about it, to talk of someone seeing a ghost is actually quite absurd.

Anything supernatural is, by definition, beyond the scope of human experience. If anything supernatural did actually exist, the only way we could ever be aware of it would be if it found a way to manifest itself in natural terms. In order to interact with the natural universe, the ghost would have to find a way to be seen. If it succeeded, then it would no longer be entirely supernatural, it would have found a way to ‘cross over’ into the natural world where it could be sensed and experience by humans and, more importantly, studied by science. Although, we would still not be experiencing the supernatural, only natural indicators thereof. (As far as ghosts go, some believe that “psychic mediums” are the phenomena used to cross over, hence the slightly facetious title of this article. That discussion is for another day, but the claims of mediums are without evidence, as many have observed.)

A popular defence of this problem is the appeal to the infamous ‘sixth sense’. “Of course we don’t sense the supernatural with our natural senses, that would be impossible. We all have a supernatural sixth sense with which to detect the supernatural”. This does not solve the problem, it simply relocates it, and it is a retreat rather than an advance. If we do have a supernatural sense with which to detect supernatural phenomena, that sense would, at some point, have to report its data back to the brain, just like the empirical senses do. If not, how would we know that anything supernatural had happened? The only way we could know that we had just experienced something supernatural, in fact, the only we can know anything at all, is through our brains. Our brains our natural, so once again, the supernatural would have to find a way to cross over. Instead of detecting the supernatural with natural senses, we are now detecting them with a supernatural sense, the data of which has to be interpreted by a natural organ.

If the believer tries to relocate the problem again, there is only one place for it to go, and that is into pure fantasy land. If the supernatural and the natural both exist, then there has to be a point where, or a method by which the two can cross over. The only way to solve this problem permanently, is to remove either the natural or the supernatural from the equation. Before I’m accused of attacking a straw man, let me be clear that I have never actually heard anyone argue a case for the following: the only way the advocate of the supernatural could maintain its existence, without concluding that we ourselves don’t exist, would be to discard the term ‘natural’, and claim that everything, the entire universe, is in fact supernatural. This would be ridiculous and simply an argument through redefinition, because the existence of the supernatural is dependent upon, and indeed defined by the existence of the natural. It literally means “above the natural”. If we accepted that all that existed is what we can empirically sense, than that could only be called the natural. Of course, with a little help from Occam’s razor, we can see that the universe which needs to be discarded, in order for us to make sense of anything, is clearly that of the supernatural.

The same principle applies to God. In order for god to create the natural universe, he would have to interact with it. Anyone who believes in a personal god who does intervene with the natural universe, has to concede to science a cross over point which they can study. The existence of God is a hypothesis science can address.

The response to anyone using the science-can-only-study-the-natural-get-out-of-jail-free-card is this: if you can experience it, we can study it, so do not pass Go, and do not collect £200.

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14 Responses to “Crossing Over With Tobe”

  1. Supernatural=make-believe. It’s as simple as that. We don’t really set up entire disciplines of study of the worlds of My Little Pony, or Spiderman. Why? Because we know they are make-believe. They are concoctions of the human mind.

    My “A ha!” moment in my deconversion occurred when I made the distinction you point out here. It was not just the belief in god(s) that was in question, but the belief in the supernatural. Once I disposed of the latter, the former was easy to shed.

    It seems to me that the proposition that there is both a natural and a supernatural existence posits two separate and distinct realities. But reality, by definition is a singularity. Something is either real, or not real. So if one chooses to believe in the supernatural, then they must dispose of the natural, which is logically incongruous, as you say.

    Good, though provoking post which deserves a lot of discussion, Tobe.

  2. Very well put. I’ve made this point to theists (and other woo-merchants) time and time again and, surprisingly, they just don’t get it.

    They just don’t seem to understand that as soon as they make any quantifiable claim, then it can and should be able to be addressed by purely natural means, and that of course means science.

    Of course, the typical response engenders a lot of hand-waving and “but…”s, but they are never able to back up their claims with any kind of evidence whatsoever. The claim, it seems, is supposed to be enough for it to taken as true.

    Nope.

  3. “The response to anyone using the science-can-only-study-the-natural-get-out-of-jail-free-card is this: if you can experience it, we can study it, so do not pass Go, and do not collect £200.”

    Let me get this straight… You guys in Jolly Old England get 200 POUNDS
    when you pass Go?!? We only get $200! Exchange rates suck….

    Nice article btw.

  4. Darnit. One of my blog topics on the list was “No such thing as Supernatural” – making exactly the point you just did. I guess I’ll cross that one off the list.

    My ex-girlfriend doesn’t believe in God, but she does believe in ghosts. I don’t get how she can do both. It’s amazing how we can partition off parts of our brains from itself and believe contrary things. Maybe she didn’t realise it’s the same thing. Mind you, that stupid TV show with Yvette Fielding looking scared and green and that Liverpudlian guy standing around in empty rooms with his eyes closed didn’t help to dispel anything.

  5. @ Spanish

    It seems to me that the proposition that there is both a natural and a supernatural existence posits two separate and distinct realities. But reality, by definition is a singularity. Something is either real, or not real. So if one chooses to believe in the supernatural, then they must dispose of the natural, which is logically incongruous, as you say.

    Great point! I never thought of it like that.

    @ Null

    Very well put. I’ve made this point to theists (and other woo-merchants) time and time again and, surprisingly, they just don’t get it.

    I don’t think they want to. It all comes down to wishful thinking, believing what they want to be true. Having decided upon a conclusion, they try to work back to the evidence.

    @ Lou

    Let me get this straight… You guys in Jolly Old England get 200 POUNDS
    when you pass Go?!? We only get $200! Exchange rates suck….

    Lol. Swings and roundabouts. Your petrol is cheaper.

    @ Darren

    Darnit. One of my blog topics on the list was “No such thing as Supernatural” – making exactly the point you just did. I guess I’ll cross that one off the list.

    I’m not the first to raise this point and I certainly won’t be the last. If you only want to write about things that haven’t been said before, you’ll restrict yourself greatly. I realised quite early on that if you just write about what you want, you’ll often bring something to the table that is actually new, just by giving your own angle on something. 🙂

    My ex-girlfriend doesn’t believe in God, but she does believe in ghosts. I don’t get how she can do both.

    I know people who are the same, it is puzzling. I think it might be partly due to a generation thing – religion is seen as something for old biddies, whereas the New Age crap is seen as hip and cool.

    Mind you, that stupid TV show with Yvette Fielding looking scared and green and that Liverpudlian guy standing around in empty rooms with his eyes closed didn’t help to dispel anything.

    Good old Most Haunted and Derek Acorah, always good for a laugh. It always used to crack me up when they talked about their “investigations”. 😉

  6. Most people who think it possible to “see” a ghost also believe that our consciousness itself is not located in the brain. We are, instead, animated by a soul, something which is itself supernatural and could, therefore, relay information about the supernatural world to our brains without having to touch the physical world.

    I think there are two things worth noting. It may sound like these are, in a way, conceding to the supernaturalists, but I think it actually makes your point stronger, not weaker.

    First, our eyes see all manner of things that are not actually lightwaves. Everything from spots of light when we rub them to full-on hallucinations seem to appear before our eyes. The fact is, our senses are not empirical. Oh, I suppose if you could rip an eyeball out of a skull, it would only observe the empirical world, but in fact the second information enters your brain it is manipulated according to everything from cultural expectations to evolutionary filters. The fallibility of our senses is what makes empirical studies so much more important, and is exactly why we need not trust someone who says they have seen a ghost.

    The second point is that the study of the way information is physically stored and manipulated in the brain has actually progressed by leaps and bounds in the last ten years (even in the last ten months). Up until the sixties or seventies, you could even almost forgive someone for believing there was some supernatual consciousness up there, as there was very little PHYSICAL evidence of how the brain worked with knowledge and memory. Sure, there was psychology, anthropology, and sociology, all pointing to the idea that the way our brains function is a product of our environment and upbringing rather than a detached magic force, but nowadays neurologists know more than ever how changes in chemistry and structure in the brain can affect beliefs and opinions. All evidence now points to everything we see, hear, and think being the result of chemical and physical processes. Because of that, they are just as fallible as our eye and ears when it comes to identifying ghosts and spirits, as there does not seem to be a soul injecting that information into our heads from an infallible sixth sense.

  7. @ rob

    Most people who think it possible to “see” a ghost also believe that our consciousness itself is not located in the brain. We are, instead, animated by a soul, something which is itself supernatural and could, therefore, relay information about the supernatural world to our brains without having to touch the physical world.

    The “soul” would encounter exactly the same problem that I described with the sixth sense. How would the supernatural soul relay info to the natural brain without a cross over? At some point it would have to interact with the natural, physical worlds.

    First, our eyes see all manner of things that are not actually lightwaves. Everything from spots of light when we rub them to full-on hallucinations seem to appear before our eyes. The fact is, our senses are not empirical. Oh, I suppose if you could rip an eyeball out of a skull, it would only observe the empirical world, but in fact the second information enters your brain it is manipulated according to everything from cultural expectations to evolutionary filters. The fallibility of our senses is what makes empirical studies so much more important, and is exactly why we need not trust someone who says they have seen a ghost.

    I never said our senses were perfect or even reliable. In fact, I’ve said before that they are not. This does not change the fact that what our senses detect is purely natural, as opposed to supernatural.

  8. tobe: Very nice post. Good to have you back in form.

    You said: Our eyes are sense organs that detect light waves and distinguish the varying frequencies to make us aware of our surroundings. They detect only the natural. Then, in response to rob’s comment, you added: I never said our senses were perfect or even reliable. In fact, I’ve said before that they are not. This does not change the fact that what our senses detect is purely natural, as opposed to supernatural.

    The small problem with your argument, I think, is that you’re using “natural” to mean two different things. In one sense, you’re saying that whatever we detect with our senses, we detect through its manifestation in nature. Hence, it’s natural. But then you seem to be saying that whatever we detect with out senses is natural, hence it exists.

    Our brains, not our senses, detect the “natural.” That guy staring at you from the mirror isn’t actually you. The real shape of a pencil doesn’t change when you stare at it through a water glass. Those people you see in the street when you peer down from the top of the Empire State Building aren’t actually as small as insects. You can’t walk on a rainbow.

    Of course, our brains (and they don’t have to be big-time trained brains; they can just be the rational workings of children’s minds) tells us that these experiences don’t conform to the natural — i.e., the real world. So then those of us who are sane adjust our thinking. The difficulty we rationalists face with people who have visions — or who hear things or who get “touched” by the holy spirit — is that they don’t allow their experiences to be explained within a scientific framework.

    But I think it’s important, as rob seems to be saying, to note that even those of us who do consider ourselves rational need to evaluate our so-called natural experiences constantly.

    The non-lying person who claims to see a ghost does in fact, see something. He or she is merely misnaming what is being seen. Just as the person who sees Jesus’s face on a tree does in fact see something: most of us would call it wood rot, or shadow, or lightning damage, or whatever. I don’t think our argument is with their senses, but with their interpretation of what those senses actually sensed.

    And their problem arises when they try to get our senses to filter our experiences through their interpretation. I’ve never really heard anyone who was trying to prove god’s existence use the argument that god doesn’t manifest himself whatsoever to our senses. Ultimately, religionists all resort to some kinds of experiential claims.

    So I might dispense with the “natural vs. supernatural” argument altogether, and merely state that things which are made manifest through the senses are subject to scientific investigation based on what we know about the way the brain interprets sensory data. If believers dismiss that with a statement along the lines of “Well, the brain is not involved,” we will, of course, agree.

  9. If I may expand a little on what Ex said,(or muddy the water, for some) the human brain, while being a truly complex and marvelous organ, is still just that – an organ. It is subject to the limitations that all organs are subject to, i.e. that they have evolved and developed according to the selective needs of our species. In short, it is not perfect.

    So where I think theists get off on the wrong track, is that when their particular brains experience stimuli, they filter it through their particular filtering organ, which is conditioned according to many things – culture, upbringing, past experience, etc.. The interpretation is personal to them, but they make the mistake of then extrapolating their own personal interpretation of their own natural experiences, into reality-wide, universal conclusions. Hence, religion. It’s a “What I experience, everyone experiences” fallacy, when it should be the reverse – “What everyone experiences, I experience”, the claim that science makes.

    This is why science is so much more reliable to explaining reality, because it tests nature against objective, humanity-wide standards, with double-blind and repetitive experiments. It does not rely on personal, anecdotal evidence. Religion is based solely on the latter. Sure, there are always claims of common mass experiences, but when scrutinized they almost always devolve to a set of personal anecdotes, often times reinforcing each other, such as the claim of the sun whirling about the sky at Fatima.

    Getting back to Tobe’s post, then, the human brain can be tricked, or can trick itself, into thinking a natural stimulus has a non-natural explanation. But we can’t trust what our own brain tells us. We have to trust science to explain it, because science is impartial and objective, unlike human brains. If science fails, then we may be justified in resorting to supernatural explanations. But so far science has not failed. The history of science is one of a forward progression of explanation. Overall, it has never gone backward.

  10. @ Exterminator,

    Sorry for the delay in replying!

    n one sense, you’re saying that whatever we detect with our senses, we detect through its manifestation in nature. Hence, it’s natural. But then you seem to be saying that whatever we detect with out senses is natural, hence it exists.

    That’s not what I’m saying, but I admit I should have been a lot clearer. It’s not necessarily the case, as you rightly say, that whatever we see is real. Our minds are powerful and we are quite prone to “seeing” things that we think are there, but may not actually exist.

    @ Spanish,

    The interpretation is personal to them, but they make the mistake of then extrapolating their own personal interpretation of their own natural experiences, into reality-wide, universal conclusions. Hence, religion. It’s a “What I experience, everyone experiences” fallacy, when it should be the reverse – “What everyone experiences, I experience”, the claim that science makes.

    Nail. Head. Hit. You get the idea. 🙂

  11. […] is a weasel word. It is not possible for the supernatural to exist. If something exists, it is natural. No matter how fantastic the universe might seem, even if string theorists are correct, and we live […]

  12. My favorite send up of John Edwards and the his ilk was an episode of “South Park” where Kyle (IIRC) gets people to believe he’s a powerful psychic by making very vague and fairly obvious “predictions” all in spite of the fact that he keeps telling the people that he’s NOT a psychic and it’s all just tricks! They can’t believe he’s not real.

    I wonder if that’s how JC got started?

  13. […] A Load of Bright has recently made a very good case that even supernatural effects would present themselves naturally and empirically to us, since our sense experience of anything is necessarily empirical and natural. Even someone who has genuinely seen a ghost has had their brain interpret electrical signals from the optic nerve from the eye where light waves have impacted on the retina through the lens, from an external light-emitting/reflecting source. Perhaps then, even if the supernatural exists, we can study its natural effects and explain those naturally. Someone, for example, who tried to explain genuinely seeing a ghost (assuming the viewer wasn’t hallucinating) without mentioning light waves, retinas, optic nerves, eyes, or brains, wouldn’t be doing science, whether the ghost was real or not. […]


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