Chapter 3 Monism and Dualism: A case for the existence of the supernatural?
In general, believers in God or the supernatural don’t feel the need for unequivocal proof of their beliefs. It is a matter of faith. Indeed, some would be sorry if there were such a proof because it would take away the relevance of faith, and perhaps of devotion. Nevertheless, with all beliefs, secular as well as sacred, it is comforting to know that they are supported by plausible grounds, particularly in the face of opposing beliefs. While I don’t think there is unequivocal proof of the existence of the supernatural – nor of its non-existence – the following discussion suggests a plausible case for belief in it. The discussion will consist of the following:
- definitions of monism and dualism;
- a brief summary of traditional arguments for dualism and my reasons for doubting them;
- other arguments for dualism and my reasons for doubting them;
- arguments that I think may provide a case for dualism.
I have already given my reasons for doubting atheistic monism in the previous chapters.
These are my personal definitions of monism and dualism, and they are open to argument. But I think they cover the basic ideas that distinguish the beliefs of Supernaturalists, Atheists and Agnostics.
Monism There exists only one type of entity, which for the sake of argument I will call material, or the material world.
The material world is said to consist of matter, energy and free space. (Here the term matter might seem to imply something hard and lumpy, in contrast to the supernatural, which is perceived to be ethereal. But modern concepts of matter and energy are that matter at its essence seems anything but hard and lumpy, and we may be unable to say how the supernatural might differ from material.)
Despite its often-apparent haphazardness, the material world, in its underlying processes, seems to be consistently deterministic. That is, things always happen according to the same principles – which become codified as laws of science whenever they are discovered and confirmed. (The relationship between the unpredictable things we continually experience in the everyday world and the underlying consistency that produces them is discussed in Chapter 10 Reductionism and Emergence.)
Philosophers do not all agree that a material world actually exists (or on what it means when we say that something exists). One school of thought that denies the existence of the material world claims that since all human thoughts and experiences are mental constructs, what we think of as the material world is just a mental construct. I don’t know whether it is possible to refute this claim but it seems implausible. It might start to be plausible if we accepted that every mind that makes mental constructs was part of a single entity and that all mental constructs were aspects of that entity. In science fiction this entity is usually a giant computer, and what seem to be individual conscious beings are just computer programs.
A few Monists would claim that the world consists entirely of something that is not material but universal consciousness, of which our subjectivity is a component. If such a world is consistent in all its processes it would seem to be indistinguishable from the material world. But even if it were conceded that what we think of as the material word could be “merely” a mental construct, or a computer program or a universal consciousness, the apparent consistency of physical phenomena as experienced in everyday life and as described by science leads people to differentiate it from their idea of the supernatural.
Nevertheless there were times in history when the operations of the material world were widely thought to be closely connected with the operations of the supernatural. At least in western Europe, a distinction between the material world and the supernatural started to become explicit with the application of mathematics to the theory of the physical sciences, as distinct from the use of mathematics in geometry and technology. Previously, the characteristics of the gods of the ancient religions were very much those of the material world. Invisible and unexplained forces of nature, such as the winds and gravity, and the actions of unseen gods and other supernatural entities could all have been of the same stuff. Gods and spirits had earthly places where they dwelt or could be consulted. Even the apparent transcendence of ancient creation stories reflects material processes. And Eastern concepts such as karma and the Dao are not explicitly dissociated from what we think of as the material world. Many phenomena that are well explained today by science are still directly associated with supernatural entities in some cultures.
Dualism In addition to the material entity there is another, separate, entity, which is the supernatural. This coexists with and may act in conjunction with the material world;
actions of the supernatural do not necessarily change the apparently consistent way in which the material world operates. However, they might produce things that we are aware of but that the material world, by itself, cannot produce.
Although it may act in conjunction with the material world, the supernatural is apparently unable to be detected by material processes. Some Supernaturalists will dispute this. My justification for saying it is that all the basic processes that we observe, measure, and record in the body of science, and that we regard to be part of the material world, seem to be universal and consistent. This explains how Atheists can deny the existence of the supernatural and Agnostics can say it is not possible to know anything about it.
For any entity to be regarded as supernatural it must be significantly different in kind from the material world. My concept is that it would not be constrained by all the laws of physics, but might observe some of them, and that it would not be dependent on the existence of space, time, matter or energy, but might contain some of them or something quite different from all of them.
I think these definitions provide for most of the things religious people attribute to the supernatural – and to God. They don’t include any “human” or “emotional” characteristics, but don’t necessarily rule them out.
Some people claim that the supernatural is able to break or control the laws of the material world, as with, for example, response to prayers, or to dances for rain in times of drought. There are also claims of matter influencing the supernatural, as in the use of ritualistic practices claimed to drive out evil spirits.
It may be asked why, if there is something other than the material world, there is only one other separate entity – why not pluralism rather than dualism? Whatever the number, it does not affect the case that is being proposed in this chapter.
(There is another use of the terms monism and dualism. Within the philosophy of theism, monism means that God is one and only one, incorporating all that might be construed as evil as well as good. Dualism then means that in addition to the good God there is another, the embodiment of evil.)
Well-Established Arguments for the Existence of the Supernatural
The doctrines of the various religions are instilled by parents, other people of authority, prevailing cultures, and the texts that provide the foundations and explanations of the religions. These are then accepted as sources of truth.
The texts may provide, among other things, historical stories, explanations of the origin of geographical features, and prophesies of future events. There may be some cultural reasons to believe the historical stories, such as of battles lost or won, which include descriptions of supernatural participation. Supernatural explanation of the origins of geographical features may seem acceptably plausible, irrespective of whether the supernatural entity is no longer active in landscaping or still produces the occasional earthquake or volcanic eruption. And prophecies recorded in the texts may seem to fit recent or current situations and events. Any of these things may be sufficient to dispel any doubts about the truth of the religious doctrines.
Prophecies that are believed to be revelations by the supernatural are either writings in (usually ancient) sacred texts, or statements by recent people. Those in sacred texts may need to be interpreted to reveal their “true” meaning before they can be claimed to refer to actual current events. The interpretation is always tenuous or ambiguous. The same texts have usually already been claimed to refer to earlier events.
In everyday life, many different and conflicting forecasts, usually specific and unambiguous, are made daily about all manner of events, and we take notice of only those that turn out to be more or less accurate. So also some religious prophecies can seem to match subsequent events, and are hailed as evidence of the supernatural. But some fail spectacularly. There have been repeated prophecies that Jesus was about to return to Earth on or just before a specific date. Some adventist Christian denominations had expected a return shortly before the year 2000. The return, of course, did not happen by the due date, but most of those who expected it have found reasons why it was deferred.
The historical stories in religious texts often contain details that can be verified or refuted by independent sources, such as archaeology, geology and the records of other cultures. Those involving the supernatural can usually be explained by known natural events, or refuted by other sources. Some, for example, the story of the flood in which only Noah’s family and a collection of animals survived, are not feasible in scientific terms or with our present knowledge about the world. Where did the water come from to cover the earth to the height of the top of Mount Ararat? Where did the water go afterwards? How many species from all around the world were rounded up and put on Noah’s Ark? Similarly, the wondrous stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the Hindu texts are not scientifically feasible. And the same applies to the supernatural histories of other religions.
Of course, the stories of magical events are compatible with the idea of a powerful supernatural entity intervening in the material world. But they describe very curious acts for an entity that has infinite capability and wisdom. Whether they are adapted versions of earlier stories, and whether purported evidence such as the remains of Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat is real, are matters of dispute. I think there are material explanations, both geological and archaeological, for any remaining purported evidence.
The issue here is whether there is any reason to accept such otherwise unlikely stories. There is no way any of the stories of the origins of the world or the landscape could have been known by the people who first told them, because they would have been born later. If they were revealed by God, then we have to take that on trust without independent evidence, and also trust that the accounts of the revelations survived without alteration until modern times. And, unless earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, etc., for which there are material explanations, are really divine interventions, the supernatural appears to have stopped intervening, at least on such a dramatic scale, a very long time ago.
Some of the texts give more than one account of a particular event or moral duty, and sometimes the accounts are contradictory, such as the descriptions of the creation of the world and the various commandments on behaviour in the early chapters of the Old Testament of the Christian bible. This occurs also in the texts of other religions. Some Supernaturalists are able to see ways by which these apparent problems can be reconciled. But the reconciliations require stretches of meanings, or claims of metaphorical writing, or the assumption that the contradictory passages are true despite the contradiction. This has something in common with the koans of Zen Buddhism. A koan is an apparently nonsensical or self-contradictory statement that, on contemplation, may be discovered to hold some truth or meaning, at least for some devotees.
The texts describe holy or divine persons, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohamed among the “Abrahamic” religions, and Rama, Buddha, Zoroaster, Bahá’u’lláh and the founding fathers of other religions. Birthplaces and other significant sites relating to most of these are still identified. There is some argument about whether the earlier of these persons actually existed, and greater argument about the miraculous deeds attributed to them. But this is not to belittle the inspirational values of some of their attributed deeds and teachings. However, Jews and Christians do not accept the status that Muslims attribute to Mohamed (whose existence is not contested) and to the Koran. Jews and Muslims do not accept the divine status of Jesus, although Jesus is regarded as a prophet in Islam. And believers in the religions that do not follow the Abrahamic tradition do not, of course, accept any of these to be the authoritative faiths.
Most of these texts describe very curious acts for an entity that has immense or infinite capability and wisdom. The issue is which, if any, should we accept, and why.
Intuitive Religious Feelings
Religious belief is supported by intuitive feelings thought to have supernatural significance. In some cases, there is a feeling that the supernatural has suddenly entered the mind the person, who has a numinous experience, i.e., suddenly feeling or knowing something “universal” or “spiritual”, or “sensing its presence” of some unseen entity. Sometimes a person may “receive a revelation” during such an experience. Sometimes the believer seeks out the supernatural through religious practices or meditation, but numinous experiences also occur unexpectedly.
Many Atheists have intuitive feelings that there is nothing but the material world. (As discussed in the preceding chapters, they usually also have intellectual justifications for their atheism.) And Atheists and Agnostics and other non-religious people have numinous experiences.
So, ask the doubters, if these feelings are significant, why do religions disagree so greatly on the nature of God and the supernatural? One answer is that religious institutions overlay additional interpretations of the supernatural for their own purposes – an answer that hardly supports the value of the beliefs. Another is that the supernatural reveals itself in a form appropriate to the culture. This seems unconvincing: outdated cultural references, misinterpretations or false additions in the texts are seldom effectively updated or corrected by new revelations that reflect the change in culture. Recorded accounts made by people who claim to have received revelation also disagree with each other. While there might still be some (yet to be provided) reason why the supernatural might give inconsistent revelations, the onus of proof here is on the believers not the doubters.
Many people believe there is good objective evidence for the existence of some kind of supernatural entity. The evidence is in the form of:
- miracles or miraculous events such as rescues or significant meetings;
- sightings of supernatural entities;
- out-of-body experiences;
- near-death experiences;
- speaking in tongues;
demon-possession and exorcism.
Miracles are phenomena that (are claimed to) defy all attempts at a natural explanation and are accordingly given a supernatural association. Miraculous events are particular coincidences that seem so unlikely that they must have been interventions, and the only source of the intervention must have been supernatural. But strange coincidences are very common, and only those that have a significant good outcome are ever regarded as miraculous. They are such things as recovery from afflictions that have been deemed incurable, seemingly impossible escapes from dire situations, appearances of stigmata (i.e., inexplicable significant marks on the body, typically appearance of wounds like the results of crucifixion) or holy statues weeping tears or blood. The Catholic church holds examinations into cases of alleged miracles affecting its members, and dismisses most of them. However, even those that are officially accepted are doubted by some members of the clergy and laity. There are no authenticated reports of miracles that “break the laws of science”. Some unexpected recoveries from dire medical conditions are claimed to be miracles, particularly when they appear to be answers to prayers. But other apparently miraculous cures happen to unbelievers and “undeserving” people. In the case of rescues or healing, a sceptic might ask why the supernatural did not intervene before the unfortunate situation occurred. If the answer is to test the person’s faith or strengthen their will, then it suggests the supernatural is capricious or unfeeling. A sceptic might also say that stories of new miracles are accepted because they strengthen the faith of members of the relevant denomination.
Significant meetings are unlikely encounters that completely changed someone’s life, presumably for the better.
Sightings of two types are claimed to be evidence of God or other supernatural entities. They may be visions or apparent sightings of an identified supernatural personage, or “catching spirits or angels out of the corner of the eye just before they disappear”. The most well known types of visions are appearances of the Virgin Mary, such as at Lourdes, and in perceived likenesses to Jesus or Mary in natural phenomena. In some sightings the Virgin Mary is reported to speak, giving guidance or making prophesies. Many people believe that these are indeed evidence. But many other people believe that they are hallucinations or illusions that have been given meanings that derive from the beliefs of those experiencing them. A way of verifying these as non-material would be to rule out all known material and psychological processes. But in many cases it is hard to obtain any knowledge of the particular circumstances. Some sightings are of cloud formations, shadows, or other patterns that are said to be depictions of holy persons Whether it is ever a true likeness is always a matter of dispute: there is usually no way of knowing what the persons believed to be seen actually looked like when alive (and the claim that they ever existed may be disputed).
The transient entities that are “almost seen” in the moment of their disappearance are much more like tricks of visual perception or imagination than evidence of anything supernatural.
Numinous and mystical experiences are feelings of awareness, often said to be “ineffable” (i.e., indescribable), of some different kind of reality. They are sometimes believed to be supernatural in origin, but they occur to Atheists and Agnostics as well as to believers in the supernatural. They can be induced by specific physical or mental exercises, including meditation, by particular drugs and by electrical or magnetic stimulation of specific areas of the brain.
“Speaking in tongues” is when a person who is believed to be inspired by the supernatural speaks volubly in a language unknown to the speaker or the listeners. Usually neither the speaker nor the listeners give an interpretation of the utterance. Such utterances that have been recorded and analysed by linguists have never contained any identifiable human language, but the sounds and sound patterns are typical of the languages known to the speaker. This strongly suggests that the utterances are of no significance in themselves, although they may impress the listeners. In any case, speaking in a language that one does not understand does not seem to be any proof of the existence of a supernatural entity. Some Muslims who do not understand Arabic can recite long passages of the Koran in Arabic, and many school children recite foreign poems that they, and perhaps the rest of the class, do not understand. There is a suggestion here that speech (or words) is itself of supernatural significance.
Clairvoyance is the claimed ability to see or know about things that could not have been seen or known about by ordinary means. Rigorous tests have never been able to demonstrate genuine cases of clairvoyance occurring in every-day life situations.
During the twentieth century there many tests were made trying to investigate or demonstrate a range of psychic phenomena. One kind of test of telepathy entailed a set of people in one location looking at a picture or a Tarot card, and other people in a different location describing the picture or naming the particular card. Another test entailed a blindfold person being asked at irregular intervals whether another person was looking at them. The other person was either concealed behind one-way glass or looking at the subject person via closed-circuit television. Overall, the subjects in these tests gave correct answers slightly more often than would have been expected by chance.
Depending on your point of view, these tests were faked, poorly designed, subject to unconscious bias, of no statistical significance, suggestive of something that we do not understand, or evidence of some supernatural entity.
I think they are still to be explained. They have been assiduously examined by Skeptics, who, when pressed, acknowledge that they cannot be dismissed. But the very nature of the apparent phenomenon, and the fact that the results are only slightly better than chance, make it very hard to see what new kind of investigation could be made. If there is some supernatural entity involved, it is a very unreliable communicator.
Out-of-body experiences are when people feel separated from their body, often “seeing” their body from some distance away. Sometimes the claims include clairvoyance. Occasionally patients who have undergone surgical operations have later claimed they have had this type of experience. People who make this claim may attribute the experience to their consciousness removing itself from their body, implying that it is supernatural and independent of their body. The out-of-body experience has been reproduced in people using a technique that demonstrates how the mind can be deceived into falsely interpreting sensory perceptions and memory.
“Near-death” experiences occur sometimes when a person is in a critical physiological condition, usually in an intensive-care unit in a hospital. People who have been in such a condition sometimes say that they have memories of being afraid or in a distressing situation. Sometimes they report details of something they have heard during their critical condition.
Occasionally they say that they have been in a dark passage with a bright light ahead. This memory tends to be interpreted according to the religious beliefs of the person, often as being about to “reach the other side” – usually meaning heaven – but deciding to “come back”. Non-believers who have had this experience usually report that there was nothing else there. The term “near-death experience” implies that it occurs at the most critical period of the person’s condition, that the person is “at death’s door” and the door is open for the person to look through.
However, the idea of a moment of death is tricky. There is evidence that when the heart stops delivering blood, the brain “shuts down” after about two seconds. But the brain cells do not immediately die, and some of them continue functioning for some time. Even after an appreciable number of minutes in this condition people have been revived from apparent death by the use of a combination of medical procedures. Some people who have recovered after this have shown that they could remember details of what was happening during the time their brain had “shut down”.
True death is a condition of the irreversible breakdown of essential parts of the body, particularly brain cells, such that body cannot recover. (Recovering is not the same as keeping the body processes artificially alive while the person is in a continuous irreversible coma.) The ability to revive people some appreciable time after the heart has stopped has been developed only within the past decade, so that it has only recently become apparent that most of those who have had near-death experiences were still some distance from death’s door. And most continued to live for an appreciable time after recovering from the condition during which the experience occurred.
There is a further issue with the near-death experience. By what process could the assumed supernatural gateway be seen at that particular time and situation, but not at any other time? Since the experience seems to have been induced by a physiological condition, it is most likely to be purely physiological and not supernatural. Could some physiological process account for the experience? In Chapter 9 The Hard Problem of Consciousness I have explained that all consciousness depends on the condition of the brain. Stresses of various kinds affect the operation of the brain, some causing specific psychodelic and other illusional experiences. The near-death experience seems to be one of them.
Demon-possession is an alleged condition in which a person’s “unacceptable” behaviour is attributed to one or more evil spirits “possessing” the person’s body. By use of a process of exorcism the spirits may be “driven out” so that the possessed person then behaves in an acceptable manner. Exorcism usually involves commanding the spirits to depart while invoking the name of Jesus and/or God, and pointing a crucifix and/or a bible at the possessed person. Additional kinds of rituals are also used. The affected person is sometimes placed under physiological or mental stress during of the ritual. Some practitioners and members of religions that use exorcism claim to have witnessed what they regard as transformations of the subject after the exorcism. The subject person may actually have had some mental disorder or been affected by some personal situation, and the exorcism may or may not have improved the situation. Or the process of exorcism may have given the person reason to change a particular behaviour. Witnessing an exorcism that is apparently successful (or being the subject of it) may be a convincing demonstration of the existence of the supernatural. The belief in demon-possession and the practice of exorcism are generally discouraged in the mainstream religions.
These kinds of evidence are at best circumstantial, they can generally be explained in purely material terms, and they exhibit a behaviour that seems most unlikely in an entity that has great or infinite wisdom, knowledge and power. This is not a complete refutation of them, but I do not regard any to be justifiable evidence of the existence, or even the probable existence, of a supernatural entity. None of them relate to an intrinsically insoluble scientific mystery.
The ancient Greeks had a religion in which there were many gods who were a bit like our well-known comic-book super-heroes. In addition to a range of super powers, the gods had most of the human frailties, and they were often able to be deceived. Their home was on Mount Olympus but they frequently came down and associated with human beings and actively involved themselves in human affairs.
Long after these gods ceased to appear in person (if they ever did), the ancient Greeks continued with this religion, built temples of worship and wrote plays in which the gods influenced outcomes. But at the same time, the Greeks developed a mode of philosophy based on observation and adversarial logic. They thought deeply about such troubling concepts as mind, existence and perfection, and did the spade work towards resolving the same questions that we are still pondering today.
Starting from differing interpretations of the world around them, they came up with different cosmologies; monistic, dualistic and agnostic. The dualistic arguments boil down to:
- we can conceive of, or deduce, the idea of perfection, so perfection must exist, and be superior to, and independent of, the observed (imperfect) world;
- the world is marvellous, so it must have been purposefully created by something else;
- something exists or occurs, so it must have been created or started (by something else).
The argument that if something can be imagined it must exist is similar to the amusing statement that taunts Atheists: God is a hypothetical entity. Therefore God exists. In one sense, this statement could be defended by the argument that every idea that we have is actually some physiological entity within our brains. But we can distinguish between what we perceive through our sensory organs and then confirm by further observation and discussion with other people, from what is conjured up in our or someone else’s imagination. Those who are unable to make this distinction are regarded as having some mental problem. Moreover, if the supernatural can “exist” in peoples’ imaginations, then its converse can also “exist” in people’s imaginations, as can everything incompatible that can be imagined by anyone. Existence of this kind is hardly what believers claim about either the supernatural or the natural.
So developing an abstract concept, like perfection, or a theory about it, doesn’t mean that there must be some entity – material or supernatural – corresponding to it. Nor does this mean that there cannot sometimes exist such an entity.
Similarly, a feeling of admiration of something, or of astonishment at it, or a feeling of awe, doesn’t signify that there must exist an entity separate from the material world. These are arguments about the supernatural based merely on the characteristics of human beings.
What is the basis of the claim that because there is one entity, such as a material one, that there must be another to have created it? Must it always stumble on the old question that if God made the world, then who or what made God?
Aristotle’s answer was that God, or the material world, is beyond time and space and process, and didn’t need to be made. This is an unanswerable statement, there being no way of demonstrating whether it is true or false. It is not necessarily an unsatisfactory answer. Aristotle also argued that the causes of various material phenomena provided evidence of God. He said that each cause has a prior cause, but there must have a very first occasion at which the whole process was started. The starter, or “first cause” was God. But, as will shortly be discussed, the starter could have been either supernatural or material.
These arguments of Aristotle were taken up by medieval religious scholars, both Christian (notably Aquinas) and Muslim (notably Averroes).
Another answer to the “who created God” question is that there is an infinite series of “Gods” or “worlds”, each one created by the previous one. This is often held to be an absurd proposition. But, looking backwards, from the present towards some “infinitely small” beginning, such a series could be a bit like a descending geometric series (such as 1, ½, ¼, etc). In the theory of fractals, a simple-looking equation can produce a very complex figure, and when an “infinitely small” part of the figure is examined it is found to still have the same shape as the “whole” figure. So this might be a good analogy for an infinite series of creators. But such a series might well be of the same essence as the material world we know (with, perhaps, some differences), rather than supernatural. And there are still the matters of a beginning and the questionable reality of infinity.
The series might not be descending; it might be interpreted as showing the infinite nature of God. What that means would be very difficult to explain, and it might be claimed that such a proposition is ridiculous and therefore God could not exist. But reductio ad absurdum is not a valid argument: it is subjective and conditional on personal beliefs about what is absurd.
This ancient issue needs further discussion, and will be referred to again in this chapter.
Second Millennium Western Europeans
The thirteenth century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas looked at the five Aristotelian “proofs” of the existence of God and made some adaptations.. Two of Aquinas’s proofs are:
Proof according to motion:
In the world I see motion.
Everything in motion has been put in this condition by the motion of something else.
So there must have been some original cause of motion.
I call this original cause God.
Proof according to design:
The processes of nature operate to produce particular results result in some consistent way.
Most natural objects lack knowledge.
In the same way that an arrow reaches its target because it is directed by an archer.
Things that lack intelligence achieve their results goals by being directed by something that has knowledge and intelligence.
There is an intelligent being that directs all natural processes, and we call this being God.
This second proof , which did not come from Aristotle, is sometimes expressed differently in a form, which did not come from Aquinas, as follows:
Alternative Proof according to design:
Everywhere in the world there is order.
Order is the result of design.
Design is the product of a designer.
I call this designer God.
The first “proof” is tantamount to saying that if something moves (or exists) it must have been the work of a supernatural entity, which then extends the argument to “what created that entity?” which has just been discussed.
The second proof as expressed by Aquinas does not take account of the fact that the archer is just another case of a material process, or that there are known forces that determine material processes. Its alternative expression is a verbal “smoke and mirrors” trick: the word order in its first appearance means neatness or something with a recognisable pattern, and in its second appearance it means something produced by a designer.
Dualist philosophers often started by assuming a transcendent God, and then used that assumption in their arguments for the existence of that God. But the 17th century French mathematician René Descartes set out to produce a rigorous rationale for dualism that started from first principles.
His argument was to start with some indisputable premise. The one he chose was the well-known cogito ergo sum (literally “I think therefore I am”), which we usually take to be equivalent to “I think therefore I exist”. This itself depends on an assumption that if something has one or more characteristics, in this case the ability to think, then it must exist. I do not think that there is any other way to demonstrate the existence of anything except identifying that it has one or more characteristics. In saying that I am tentatively suggesting a meaning for the concept of existing. In Descartes’ case his being able to think was the characteristic that he could be most certain of.
He then assumed that he could not have thought of the idea “I think therefore I exist” by himself, so he concluded that the idea must have come from God. To me this is an unjustifiable assumption. He may have been unsure about how he came by the idea, but he had no way of being sure that it could not have come from within his mind. And unless he denied that there were any other human minds from which the idea may have been suggested, he had no reason to conclude that it must have come from God. So he has started to relax the rigour that he had initially intended.
Descartes used the Greek argument that being able to have an idea of perfection means there must be such a thing as perfection, which he then assumed to be a characteristic of God. From there, he argued, as Plato did, that mind is separate from matter. A human being, he said, is a product of both matter and God. The body is the product of the parents’ bodies: the mind, which is able to visualise perfection, is a product of God. Descartes dismissed the philosophical difficulty, raised by some of his contemporaries, about the nature of the interaction between mind and body by attributing it to the “goodness” of God. I have tried to avoid this kind of difficulty in my definition of the supernatural. But my definition would not have satisfied Descartes because it does not exclude a depersonalised supernatural entity that might not necessarily be “good”.
The Dutch Jew Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes reacted against Descartes’ dualism. To Spinoza, any principle that might be called God or the supernatural was immanent in the natural world, rather than transcendent. There was, he said, only one “substance”, because all things that can interact together must be of the same kind. To Spinoza, all of nature, irrespective of whether it contained God or anything supernatural, obeyed the one set of laws. This would rule out my definition of dualism, but only on the grounds of faith – that is, faith in the assumption that things of essentially different nature could not possibly interact. This might challenge me to say how they could. A possible answer might be that an omnipotent God could do everything whatsoever, including interact with something that was essentially different from it. I think this answer has problems. But until it is demonstrated that a supernatural entity, as defined by me, could not interact with the material world, the possibility of the existence of such a supernatural entity remains.
Another critic of Descartes’ dualism, Bishop George Berkeley, thought that Descartes, as a scientist, attributed too much to the material side and not enough to God. Wishing to defend the notion of God, Berkeley turned the argument around and concluded that everything that we know exists only in our minds. That is, while there are all sorts of things that we know about, they are not material. But if more than one person sees the same object, in whose mind does the object exist? Berkeley’s answer is that our minds are really parts of God. This was a monistic view: Berkeley held that the only entity that existed was supernatural, the God of Christianity.
Where then does the content of out minds come from if our minds are just parts of God? If our minds still receive their input through the senses, are our sensory organs material? If so, this contradicts Berkeley’s argument. If not, why do we (think we) have sensory organs?
Perhaps Berkeley meant that as we grow from babyhood to adult and beyond, our minds are gathering their increasing stores of memories, etc., and are just getting more and more bits of God. This suggests that our whole experience is just a phantasm: that there is no such thing as a reality that can be justly distinguished from what we might otherwise think were misunderstandings, failures of memory, illusions, delusions, fantasies and hallucinations, which can be among the contents of our minds. And our joy, our sorrow, our pain, our pleasure are all just parts of God. When we think we are doing something, we now “know” that this apparent experience is just part of God.
If this is Berkeley’s idea of what actually exists, then the answer to every possible question anyone could ever ask must be ‘it is just part of God’. There could be no other knowledge. However, the world would still look the same, but all of our imaginings would be equal parts of it.
As a justification of the existence of God or any other type of supernatural entity Berkeley’s concept fails. (However, the Empiricists, who are mentioned later in this section, were influenced by his concept that the material world exists only in the mind.)
But when there happens to be an invalid argument in favour of a particular case, his has no bearing on whether that case is false or true. There are plenty of unsound arguments for many things. An unsound argument for monism is to describe the supernatural as being, by definition, outside the natural world, and then to claim that it therefore doesn’t exist. It would be just as valid to claim that therefore it does exist. I think my definition of dualism forestalls this kind of argument.
There is a story that relates an amusing example of an unsound argument for the existence of the supernatural involves three famous people. In the 18th century, Catherine the Great of Russia wanted to rid her court of the aggressively republican French philosopher Denis Diderot, who happened to be an Atheist. So she summoned the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, a Calvinist Christian also residing at her court, to confront and shame him. Euler accosted Diderot with the statement:-
(a + bn ) ¸ n = x therefore God exists. Respond!
The non-mathematical Diderot had no idea what Euler was talking about, or that it was pure gobbledegook. He fled in confusion.
(When this story is quoted, the formula is not always the same as the one above. And in fact, Diderot was by no means ignorant of mathematics. But even if that means the whole story is just a concoction, there are many other pieces of gobbledygook being used to confuse the unwary.)
The philosophies discussed above assume the truth about some aspect of the material world, and from this try to conclude something about the existence of the supernatural. An opposing school, the Empiricists, arose in the late 17th century arguing that everything that human beings can know must come from the interpretation by the brain of what is delivered through the senses. And since the senses are limited and fallible, this limited what could be known about the material world and excluded knowing anything about God or any other supernatural entity. This is tantamount to agnosticism, but that term was not coined until the 19th century.
Opponents of empiricist agnosticism point out that some fairly precise ideas are quite independent of the senses. Examples can be found in mathematics, for example. The senses are not much help in knowing about things like the square root of minus one, or of various kinds of infinity. And many religious believers would claim that the supernatural can be known without recourse to the senses or to the physical world. However, in both cases, mathematics and “knowing” that bypasses the senses, some criteria are needed if we are to decide whether such ideas are true. And, as Aristotle reportedly said, there is no agreement about criteria.
Although we might argue whether there is such an entity as the square root of minus one, we can employ it in science and technology and can attribute some material significance to it. If such usefulness is a criterion for existence, which is debatable, then it exists. Whether something similar can be done for the supernatural will be discussed later in this chapter.
Other Arguments for Dualism
Beauty and Wonder
Admiration and wonder at the world, at the beauty of flowers, forests and landscapes, at the marvel of ecosystems and the interworking of the bodies of complex organisms, can create feelings of awe. For some people this is enough evidence for the existence of some spiritual agency. Some people might find even the beauty of mathematics wondrous enough to warrant belief in the supernatural.
But what is beautiful is very dependent on the personality and enculturation of the beholder. What is wondrous to one person is the inevitable outcome of the workings of nature to another. The native forests and flowers of Australia were not very beautiful to most of the Europeans who arrived in the early years of settlement, but they are now. A rose and a cabbage are similar in structure, but cabbages are not thought to be very beautiful. The feelings of awe, indifference and dislike aroused in people are attributes of the individual people, not of the particular thing that arouses the feelings. So I do not accept that such feelings, nor the things that aroused them, are evidence of anything supernatural.
Meaning and Purpose
I think that, in this context, the words meaning and purpose both imply the same thing, i.e., justification for existing. Some people feel that their life would have no meaning or purpose if there were no supernatural entity for them to serve. This implies that the (omnipotent and omniscient) supernatural would be in some way disadvantaged if deprived of their service, and this is why they were “put on Earth”. Some people feel that their purpose in life is to secure a pleasant eternal supernatural life after the death of their material body. To qualify for a place they must live in such a way that meets certain rules. They may claim that if they had no purpose they may as well not be alive. But what then is the purpose of having eternal life?
This is not to downplay the need for personal dignity and to feel worthwhile. Some people’s life situation may be such that the only way they can fulfil this need is to feel that they have some status as a believer and servant of God. But having feelings that humanity must have a meaning and a purpose is not evidence of the existence of a supernatural. People have many kinds of strongly held feelings – of being superior or inferior to other people, of continual impending doom or good fortune, of generosity or antagonism to other people. No feelings of any kind are evidence of anything other than the personality or experience in life of the individual people.
Some people may feel that they “have no reason to get out of bed”, in other words, there is nothing that they think is worthwhile doing. If belief in a supernatural entity would give them reasons to “get out of bed”, then such belief might improve their life. But that does not mean that the belief must be true.
The Geometric Mean
This is the curious “discovery” that the size of a human being is approximately the geometric mean of the size of the entire universe and the size of the smallest particle known to science. The conclusion that has been made of this is that humanity is very special in the cosmic scheme, and accordingly there must be some supernatural entity.
All this needs explaining. The geometric mean between two numbers is another number that is as many times larger than the smaller number as the bigger number is larger than it. To give a numerical example, the number 60 is ten times the number 6, and the number 600 is ten times the number 60. So 60 is the geometric mean of the numbers 600 and 6. (What we usually refer to as the average between two numbers is the arithmetic mean, that is, the number “half way” between them. The arithmetic mean of 600 and 6 is 303.)
Whether we are able to say how large the (expanding) universe is, and how large (or small) the smallest individual particle of matter is, is a matter of debate. Even if we knew these things, what size would we select for a typical human being? But having made a selection and assuming that its size was the geometrical mean of the largest and smallest possible material things, what is so special about the geometric mean, compared with, for example, the arithmetic mean? And if this size really were special, would other species of the same size as us also be special, and how about very small and very large people? Our species has had only a short history on Earth and may well be superseded by others of greater intelligence and different size. There may be life forms with intelligence and other attributes superior to ours in other parts of the universe with greater claims to being special, irrespective of their size.
This whole idea of humanity being at the geometric mean of size (and mass?) of all material (excluding dark matter which is said to have about six times the mass of the “visible” matter of the universe that scientists are able detect) might sound attractive on first acquaintance. But the more it is looked into the more implausible this claim becomes as evidence for the existence of the supernatural.
Modern Science and Philosophy
Modern science is sometimes called on to justify both monism and dualism. Science is a self-consistent body of explanations about everything observable. In science, the objective is to continually seek more evidence about the material world, and to test all evidence and all explanations against each other. Because the details of science are continually being adjusted to fit together so completely with each other as new discoveries are made, science can be a very persuasive substitute for absolute truth.
Some earlier scientific findings, such as those of the cosmologists and evolutionists, challenged a few religious claims about history and nature. But until recently science did not seem to concern itself with the actual existence of God or the supernatural.
Some scientists who are believers in the existence of a supernatural entity, and other believers who have some scientific knowledge, have looked to science for evidence of support of their belief. Two aspects of science where they claim to find evidence relate to the creation of the material world and creation of life on Earth. Their claims to evidence are known as the Anthropic Principle and Intelligent design.
The Anthropic Principle
Physical science recognises several “universal constants”, that is, measures of basic characteristics of the world that determine such things as the strength of the gravitational force or the speed of light. Scientific calculations suggest that if some of these constants had slight differences from their present values, the universe might be so different that life could not exist, and in some cases the universe itself could not produce stars or planets. Also, it is clear that the conditions on Earth are very different from those of most of the other planets that have so far been observed in any detail. These conditions, and the size and location of our moon, make Earth eminently suitable for the many requirements of multicellular organisms, including us.
Some people claim that these findings leave us with the question of how such a convenient set of conditions could have occurred, a question that they say science cannot explain. They claim that therefore there must have been some external entity that fixed the fundamental constants to their values in order to enable the universe to exist in this form. Furthermore, they claim that this same entity, which happens to be their version of God, would also have arranged for the conditions on Earth to be suitable for human beings. This is the “strong” version of a variety of ideas that relate humanity to the sciences and are referred to as the anthropic principle. Other versions are less sweeping in their claims, for example that the findings of science are what they are because of the characteristics of human minds and sensory organs.
Some scientists argue that the anthropic principle merely postulates an unprovable non-scientific solution to an issue that has (as yet?) no scientific explanation, so it should not be taken seriously. This may be a fair comment, but it is not enough to completely refute the strong anthropic argument.
The strong, “fine-tuning” version of the anthropic principle has two arguments, one relating to the universe as a whole and one relating to life on Earth. I will discuss life on Earth first.
The strong version of the anthropic principle seems to ignore (or its supporters dispute) the fact that humanity has existed for only a very short part of Earth’s existence as a planet and still continues to evolve as a species. So the whole idea seems like enormous hubris. Humanity would need to be singularly wonderful for it to be the objective of such a long, huge intricate process. Why, after such a tortuous process, produce a species having among its characteristics so much antisocial behaviour, and why during the process also produce the pests that beset us – and also all other species? There is evidence that Homo sapiens is still evolving and will continue to evolve. So we should not regard ourselves as the ultimate life form or the final product of a creator.
Many of the stars in our galaxy that have been examined have been found to have planets. Almost a thousand planets have been detected at the time of writing, and new planets are being detected and described at an increasing rate. Most of them appear to be far too hot or cold or violent to provide the conditions necessary to develop and sustain life of any kind, and only about one percent seem to be habitable. Given that there are billions of stars in our galaxy, the number of planets in the universe that might contain life would still be enormous. It will probably be a long time in the future before we could discover whether any life on the habitable planets is more complex than bacteria. Nevertheless, it might now be reasonable to conclude, and in fact it is generally assumed, that life would appear wherever conditions were right, and that in other parts of the universe the conditions could lead to complex intelligent and conscious life. In each case the life forms that appeared would be adapted to, and restricted by, the chemistry, gravity, temperature, wind speed, etc., of their environment, and each would be greatly different in some ways from any life on Earth. So it’s not that the conditions of planet Earth were made to be just right for us, but that we, and the rest of Earth’s biota, are the way we are because of the many episodes in the history of the universe, and in particular of Earth.
The complex life that may occur elsewhere in the universe need not depend on DNA. But it would need some system that would provide operational control and storage, and processing of information, so as to enable it to develop, survive and reproduce. The chemicals that DNA codes for, and DNA itself, are not stable at temperatures appreciably higher than those that have persisted on the surface of the earth for billions of years. It is conceivable that other forms of life could exist at temperatures appreciably beyond those that would support the life forms that exist on Earth. But it is hard to envisage the chemical compounds that would provide functions equivalent to those of DNA. If such life does exist, its characteristics would necessarily be determined by the conditions under which it developed and survived.
Many scientists conjecture that there is or was life on the planet Mars and on some moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Many people think that life must exist in millions or even billions of places throughout the universe. Some of this life could have reached a high stage of intelligence and culture, and have surpassed the intelligence and culture that we are familiar with. This could be thought to justify something much more general than the anthropic principle, that is, a “life principle”. Also, it could mean that any type of world that was as large and as internally interactive as “our” universe, and that could exist for several billion years, would be likely to produce various forms of life.
So the scientific position is that the universe is so large and diverse that intelligent life could have developed somewhere in it through natural causes. Moreover, it is most unlikely that the universe was created purely for a recently-arrived small group of interesting but imperfect organisms that now appear to be making their divinely provided planet uninhabitable. Scientists and others believe that it’s not that the nature of the universe and the conditions of planet Earth were tailor-made to be just right for us, but that we, and the rest of Earth’s biota, are the way we are because of the history of the universe and of Earth. This history includes events that caused mass extinctions of earlier species, which allowed Homo sapiens to evolve.
But having addressed the claim that the earth was fine-tuned so that we could exist, can I now explain the fine tuning that allows the universe to exist in its present form?
Some scientific theories propose that there are very many other universes and they would each be different from ours. This could mean that the physical constants that determine the characteristics of our universe just happen to allow it to support galaxies, stars, planets and life.
There may be a slightly more plausible version of this, and it relates to the big bang, which is regarded to have been the beginning of the universe. The issue here is how the big bang could have occurred. How could the mass and energy of the billions of galaxies in the universe have suddenly appeared, all packed into a volume that was microscopic in size? Some physicists think this question is meaningless because “we can’t go back before the big bang”. Other physicists think that there had to be something before the big bang, and the matter and energy of the big bang was just an unusual part of that something. Similar big bangs and universes could have occurred with different characteristics. (For more on this see A Universe from Nothing in the SUNDRY MUSINGS part of this website.)
But it could be that, irrespective of whether there are other universes, it is just our luck that the constants, and the unusual conditions of Earth as a planet, happened to be the way they are. Our luck may seem too good to be true, just as someone might marvel at winning the lottery with the first ticket they ever bought. Such things happen. The anthropic principle is like a claim that the win was not just luck but that the lottery was rigged. Even if you were inclined to dismiss such a claim you would still need proper evidence to refute it. And a wise would-be accuser would carefully gather firm evidence before making an allegation.
Some scientists think there is evidence that some of the universal constants had different values at an earlier period, and may still be changing. Or, what may be the same thing, that the constants are different in different parts of the universe. It has also been suggested that even if the fundamental constants had a range of values that were different from what they now are, they might still lead to a stable universe and habitable planets. If something like this could be demonstrated to be true it would undermine the premise on which the anthropic principle is based.
Also, a lot has happened in cosmology and other physical sciences since the fine-tuning argument was first proposed. We now have the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. The Standard Model of quantum theory, which in most aspects is both accurate and precise, is still recognised to be incomplete and in some ways incomprehensible. So it would be difficult to maintain a case that the universe could not have existed under different underlying conditions.
But even if such a case could be made, I would see no reason to believe that the universe must therefore have been deliberately designed and built by some supernatural entity.
Another conclusion claiming that science provides proof of a non-material entity is known as Intelligent Design. This is based on the complexity of many biological forms that are thought to be “too complex to have happened by chance”. An intelligent entity is then invoked as the designer of such forms. This argument has serious theoretical problems and has no evidence to support it. It is discussed in detail in Chapter 7 Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory.
Fog or Impasse?
Over the past century, recent findings in the physical and biological sciences have raised new questions about existence, and about God, and the grounds for considering such issues. The commonsense view of the world was altered when it was firmly established that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. It was further confronted by the conclusions of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Then it was shown, by mathematicians Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing, that all strong systems of logic must be incomplete and uncertain, and by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that much abstract reasoning is unreliable.
Physics has come to a point where it explains the fundamental elements of nature in terms that appear to have nothing whatever to do with commonsense ideas of reality. And modern physics is perplexed by its inability to provide consistent logical explanations for some of its observations.
Some people claim to discern the hand of God in this apparent fog, some see pure material processes. Others just see fog.
A prominent writer, James Le Fanu, has referred to this issue in his books, for example in Why Us: How science discovered the mystery of ourselves. He attributes the impasse to one of science’s fundamental tools, reductionism. Reductionism, which is discussed in some detail in Chapter 10 Reductionism and Emergence, is the process of analysing things to see how they work. Le Fanu says science cannot proceed further because this process omits some additional, possibly non-material, entity. As I will point out later, reductionism is a powerful scientific tool. It may have limitations, but they are not of the kind that would support Le Fanu’s argument.
The “Absurdity” of Atheistic science
Any judgment that something is absurd is based on assumptions or beliefs of what is reasonably true. There are several propositions that were once thought to be absurd but are now accepted and have application in explaining aspects of the material world and are used in technology. Examples are: contradictions of the axioms of Euclidean geometry; that there could be negative and imaginary numbers; and some of the properties of matter as described in quantum mechanics.
These ideas, and the fact that science does not support the creationist views of the origin of the world, have led to the development of a case that attempts to destroy them. The case consists of a series of “absurd” propositions that are claimed to be implicit in modern science. These propositions are presented, with my comments, as follows.
Randomness produces fine-tuning The concepts of randomness and “fine tuning” are vague. Many processes that are apparently random produce complex patterns and structures. When pseudo-random processes are applied in the development of such things as electronic circuits or computer algorithms they have frequently been shown to produce fine-tuning. The addition of “random” noise has been used to improve the quality of indistinct digital signals. But the argument is probably aimed at the theory of evolution, which is commonly but erroneously regarded to rely on a random process. (The concepts of randomness and chaos are discussed in Chapter 12 Randomness.)
Chaos produces information Like, randomness, chaos is a vague concept, unless in the mathematical sense in which it is causal and contains information. Also, the statement implies that the material universe (and by implication, evolution) is driven by haphazard “chaotic” forces. In fact, the underlying processes of the material world seem to be consistently causal.
Non-reason produces reason This statement seems to imply that any science that contradicts “common sense” ideas about creation or anything else must be “non-reason”, but no specific argument has been proposed. And it has to be acknowledged that some of the conclusions of, for example, quantum theory do seem nonsensical. But a lot of our modern technology would not work if they were untrue.
Non-life produces life Many biologists and philosophers think that life is an emergent property of inanimate matter. I think this an open question. It will be discussed later in this chapter and in Chapter 8 When does a Life Begin? (See also Chapter 10 Reductionism and Emergence.)
Non-consciousness produces consciousness Many philosophers think that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. As discussed below and again in Chapter 9 The Hard Problem of Consciousness, I think this an open question.
Nothing produces everything This will be discussed in detail later in this chapter.
The last three of these “absurdities” lead to what I think constitute the best cases for accepting that something might possibly exist in addition to the material world. But I have to acknowledge that these three cases are the perspective of one specimen of a recently evolved organism on a small planet of a middle-sized star in a galaxy containing billions of stars: it is hardly a cosmic perspective.
My Case for the Possible Existence of the Supernatural, and Counter Arguments
I have now discussed many cases that have been put forward to demonstrate or prove the existence of some supernatural entity. Many people would like some or all of them to be true. Nothing I have said about them is a complete refutation. But because there are already material explanations to counter them I see no compelling reason to accept any of them.
It seems to me that if there is to be a more compelling case for the existence of the supernatural we might find it in places where there is no satisfactory materialist explanation, and particularly if the case seems to be intrinsically inexplicable in material terms. I think that three such cases are the production of life from inanimate matter, the nature of consciousness and the beginning of the material world. A consequence of suggesting a supernatural entity is that we could feasibly attribute abilities to it that would provide an explanation but would not be accepted in a scientific explanation.
Living matter and Inanimate Matter
The arguments that the supernatural is a necessary part of life are that no scientific account has yet been produced to show how life developed out of inanimate matter, and that there is no clear explanation of what produces the intrinsic difference between inanimate matter and living matter.
In the discussion on the anthropic principle earlier in this chapter, I suggested that life might arise intrinsically in any large reactive and enduring universe. This implies the materialist view, that life is an emergent property of matter – assuming that matter is inanimate in its simplest atomic form. So am I now, by suggesting a possible supernatural entity as the difference between inanimate and living matter, accepting the anthropic principle?
No, I am not. The idea behind the anthropic principle is that the universe was designed in a certain way so there could be people. What I am suggesting is the possibility that there needs to be something supernatural to make the difference between what is alive and what is not. As is discussed in Chapter 4: The Nature of the Supernatural, I think there is no justification for attributing any characteristics to this particular supernatural entity other than the ability to promote life or give life to specific arrangements of matter.
Although there is plenty of evidence for the step-by-step processes by which the various established forms of life on Earth continue to differentiate, there are only suggested sequences for how an evolutionary process from inanimate matter to an ancestor of any present form of life could have occurred. This might be explained by claiming that life on Earth originated from outer space. But that would take us no closer to explaining the process of life arising out of inanimate matter.
Possible precursors to RNA and many other components of living matter had probably been naturally available during the early period of the earth’s history, and evidence of them has been found elsewhere in the universe. Also, we know of self-replicating organic molecules. But it is still only guesswork as to whether the primaeval process could have started through carbon-based chemicals or something else, such as forms of clay.
Further, it is generally held, on the evidence of DNA and on the structure of the basic parts of organisms, that all life forms on Earth have a common ancestor, or group of similar original ancestors. This could imply that there was only one progression from inanimate matter to life in the entire history of Earth’s biota; a single accident perhaps, never to be repeated. Many scientists expect that evidence will be found of separate cases of life having arisen spontaneously from matter, on Mars for example (but they would need to confirm that it was not of the same origin as life on Earth, perhaps transferred on a meteorite).
Or they may even produce life artificially. As far as I am aware, even the simplest of live organisms has yet to be synthesised. Claims have been made that a new living species could be created by assembling DNA and enclosing it in a membrane. This would then need to be able to live in an appropriate environment and to reproduce. Both the DNA and the enclosing membrane would need to be viably reproduced in following generations for this to be accepted as a form of life.
In fact, DNA sequences of viruses have been assembled and inserted into host species, with the result that the virus replicates in the host, and can be extracted. But this is an assembly-line process of manufacturing an entity that does not grow, has no metabolism and cannot reproduce. It, like all viruses, is not a living organism. A virus cannot do anything except have its replication pattern of DNA or RNA inserted into a live cell, which then assembles multiple copies of the virus in accordance with the pattern.
Again, simplified live bacteria have been assembled using DNA and other parts of live existing species of bacteria. But I could not regard that as producing life from inanimate matter. I would want to see all the parts synthesised and assembled in vitro to comprise or develop into the new living organism before I accepted it as life produced out of non-living matter. I am not saying that it is impossible – just that the present incapability is circumstantial evidence for the existence of the supernatural. If it were ever achieved it would not be life emerging in an evolutionary process: it would be life being fabricated by a human designer.
If inanimate matter were ever assembled into the form of an organism, what might be the difference between it and a live organism? Would it be automatically alive? Perhaps the supernatural would be waiting there to “breathe life into it” – like resuscitating an unconscious accident victim with CPR, or starting the motor of a car. But if the supernatural is unable to be detected we will never know.
We do know that the history of science is one of continually showing the physical causes of phenomena previously attributed to gods or spirits. So why invoke the supernatural here, and not to some as-yet undiscovered physical principle? One (not very good) answer could be that if there were such a physical principle it would already have been detected.
There is the question of what the supernatural would have to do to produce the progression from matter to life. It might be something associated with the great persistence and ingenuity that most life forms seem to possess. Whether we are thinking of microorganisms, insects, plants or animals, they so often manage to keep on surviving and reproducing, under adverse conditions and attempts at extermination. (But also fire, once started, can display a remarkable persistence, and we do not regard fire as living, except metaphorically.) Perhaps the supernatural – the “life force” as it has been called in this context – might act in appropriate cases where there is a chance of spontaneous organisation and replication in the material world. And perhaps it is this that starts off evolution, and keeps it going. Or it might be something unimaginably different.
If the supernatural is a necessary element of all life, and its function is to allow or cause each organism’s body to be operational, this would suggest also that the emergence of primordial life out of inanimate matter was aided by the supernatural. The materialist counter to this is that the evolution of increasingly complex organisms from simple unicellular organisms is a purely material process, so there is no need to invoke the supernatural in any aspect of life. The existence of viruses, which are inanimate but display life-like features, might suggest that there is an intermediate condition between the inanimate matter and life.
Humanity may, or may not, ever find an evolutionary path from inanimate matter to organism. But if it were to synthesise actual life forms that were to be spontaneously alive – and deciding that would require meeting appropriate criteria – then I think this argument for the existence of the supernatural would be seriously weakened. It might not necessarily be refuted, but there would no longer be any reason to take it seriously.
Intelligence and consciousness
(This issue is discussed in more detail in Chapter 9 The Hard Problem of Consciousness.)
It is commonly said that the mind is merely an aspect of the operation of brain and body, just as digestion is the operation of the alimentary system. Is this a poor analogy? Digestion is nothing but a set of processes, complex though they may be, to break down food into components that can be absorbed into the body for the body’s metabolism. This is unquestionably a material process. A system has been manufactured that contains components representing the various parts of the alimentary tract, and containing enzymes, can turn what we eat into energy, materials for use by the body and faeces. One simplified version of such a system operates in the MONA museum in Tasmania, and there are others in museums in other countries.
Similarly, intelligence, i.e., the processes of recording data, remembering, reasoning calculating, and reacting, can be shown to be a material process. But consciousness is not the same as intelligence. Experiencing is a lot more than just recording and reasoning. Consciousness is the subjective core of our being.
Despite extensive demonstration of the workings of neurons, hormones and neurotransmitters, and of detailing the functions of the various parts of the brain, and the development of very intelligent computers and neural networks, there is still strong argument about whether consciousness and/or free will could be purely material processes. Robots have been built that behave as if they have a motivation to perform simple tasks, and an interest in aspects of their surroundings that could be relevant to their tasks. But any “motivation” they might have is just as unconscious as the “motivation” of a mousetrap, which is a spring ready to be released. While it is possible to demonstrate processes of the brain that accompany certain of our own subjective awareness, no theory can yet satisfactorily explain the process by which awareness is produced. One materialist explanation is that the consciousness is a “strange loop”, a particular emergent condition of a highly complex intermeshing and self-referencing of active neurons. But while complex interactions, including strange loops, can produce unpredictable and interesting outcomes, there is no proposal about what they might do that would produce the characteristics of consciousness.
Some people claim that consciousness is merely an illusion. That seems to me to be the kind of paradox that no amount of careful definition can resolve: to what entity is consciousness an illusion?
A dualistic claim is that the brain is the machine that interprets the material world to the supernatural. There is no known mechanism in the brain that would perform such a process, but perhaps the supernatural would not need one to read the brain. If, as I have suggested, the supernatural does not have to obey the laws and logic that seem to constrain the material world, then invoking it might well solve the problem of consciousness.
But there is probably much that is still to be discovered about the underlying processes and logic of the material world. So some new scientific discovery might some day explain how the brain produces consciousness. But unless or until some new scientific evidence can unequivocally do so, the supernatural cannot be ruled out.
Beginnings of the Material World
How did the material world begin? The old argument goes: There had to be God to make the world. But this is answered by: So who made God?
It might be feasible to claim that God, by definition, “always existed”. Is it feasible to claim that the material world always existed? To make such a claim about God is to rely on belief in God’s existence and on a set of characteristics ascribed to God for which there is no direct evidence. But it is not justifiable to make any claims about the material world without good reason and evidence.
On this issue of the beginnings, we can do no more than apply our acquired knowledge of the material world and use reasoning to try either to show that the material world always existed or else to rigorously explain how it began. This raises the issue of how to stop the continual sequence of the question: What happened before that? To answer this question it is necessary to propose a situation where time does not exist, because if time does not exist there is no before and no after. And if there is no before and no after, change cannot occur. The common answer, which complies with accepted cosmology and the standard model of quantum theory, is: The existence of time itself is a consequence of the big bang. This, of course, raises the question: Then how could the big bang have occurred? The theory of relativity unites time with space in the concept of space-time. So instead of a before and after, could there have been a there and here? Even if this were feasible (and who am I to say it is not?) it would only shift the problem.
It must have been necessary for time (and/or space?) to already exist for the big bang to have occurred. So time would have been a property of the universe’s antecedents, which brings us back to the question of how it all started.
One conjectured answer is that time might not always run in the direction that we are familiar with. It might also be able to run backwards. So there would be no need for there to have been a beginning: at critical stages, time just reverses direction. According to this idea, the universe would eventually stop expanding and start contracting until it has shrunk to the size it was at the moment of the big bang. Then time would once more reverse and everything would start off again in the direction of time that we are familiar with. Physicists regard the fact that time runs “forward” to be a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics: heat never flows to a hot object from a cold object. Objects that accidentally break never accidentally reassemble, and cakes never get uncooked.
Presumably, if time actually ran backwards, then broken pieces would accidentally get reassembled to form the whole object. And you would “un-eat” a cake before it separated into its uncooked ingredients, after which the egg that was part of the cake would reassemble and enter the bird that belonged to it. For the effect of a reversal in the direction of time to be different from this it would be necessary to reconsider the second law of thermodynamics. Also, some new theory would be needed to explain how a reversal in the direction of time would put things back. For example, when a cup falls onto a hard floor and shatters, the force that causes the brittle china to crack and fly apart does not have any known reverse counterpart that would weld the fragments together.
It could be argued that if time were to be going in this reverse direction, then the whole experience would seem to be normal to everyone, and they would develop theories to account for their experiences. But, since time reversing direction implies that it is just reproducing conditions and events that actually happened in the past, people would have had to have been experiencing time going backwards and forming explanations of that experience in the past. I would suggest that nobody is or has ever been experiencing and explaining gross time reversal.
According to the theory of loop quantum gravity, the universe could, at some stage, stop expanding and start contracting without time reversing. Eventually the universe would become small enough and dense enough to “bounce”, after which it would start expanding again. So in this view the big bang was really the big bounce. But, both with bouncing and time reversal, there is still no satisfactory explanation of how the sequence began.
There is, however, a theory that our universe is just a tiny part of a superuniverse. Most of the superuniverse is in a condition of thermal equilibrium, that is, the temperature is the same everywhere. Think of a gas at uniform temperature in a container that won’t let heat in or out. The molecules of gas are in continual motion and occasionally collide with other molecules or the walls of the container. If the container was very much larger than our universe, then there is a statistical possibility that, once in every trillion trillion years or so, some of the molecules would coincidentally bunch together close enough to form a universe like ours. And after tens of billions of years, that abnormality of a universe would have expanded and gradually merged into the rest of the gas. So, when the inevitable question, ‘Who or what caused that immense superuniverse to occur?’ is asked, the answer could be that time and space are infinite, and to ask about beginnings or first causes would be meaningless.
There are reasons why people could accept this as an answer to the never-ending series of asking And what happened before that? It could be proposed as the process that led to the big bang, because it addresses the issue of how such a huge amount of mass-energy got together in such a tiny space before starting to expand extraordinarily rapidly. (Or, to express this in thermodynamic terms, it explains how such a huge amount of mass-energy could achieve a state of very low entropy).
It also fits what we think is now happening in the universe. There is general agreement that the (our) universe is expanding and that the rate of expansion is increasing. So all the parts of the universe are moving further apart. This has been likened to the way spots on a balloon move further away as the balloon expands. The rate of expansion of the universe is so great that the more distant parts of the universe are being moved away faster than the speed of light. So the light they emit will never reach us. This means that the proportion of the universe that we can see is getting smaller.
It is generally agreed that the universe is “running down”, that is, that it is gradually equalising in temperature. For example, the sun is continuously emitting a huge amount of hot radiant energy. Most of this radiation goes into outer space and is cooled by the expansion of the universe. A tiny amount of this radiation hits the earth and other objects, which are then slightly warmed. But they are continuously emitting cooler, lower energy, radiation. In this way the universe is becoming more and more uniform in temperature.
So this theory of a uniform superuniverse might satisfy someone as an answer to the matter of beginnings. But there are problems with a universe that is infinite in space and time. Everything possible would have already happened in it an infinite number of times and places. But what is possible or impossible in a universe that is infinite in space and time? Are there laws that constrain the possibilities? If so, what made the laws what they are? Are they compatible with what we think of as the laws of science, or do our laws depend on what is, by this argument, the peculiar condition of our universe? Is it possible that these “supercosmic” questions could be answered by people confined to a tiny planet of a middle sized star of a medium sized galaxy that has billions of stars in this small anomaly of the superuniverse?
This last question is important, because when this infinite-superuniverse-in-equilibrium theory is proposed as an explanation of the big bang, the objection is raised that while systems in equilibrium can have minor aberrations, an aberration the size of the big bang is just too big. But this objection is applying a restriction that relies on our concepts. And anyway, any finite aberration is still a miniscule part of an infinite superuniverse. And how valid is the concept of infinite space and time?
This whole ingenious theoretical construct may be mathematically rigorous, and it just might be true. But there is no reason to think that it must be true. And it is certainly beyond human capacity to judge whether it is.
Several other scientific suggestions have been proposed to explain what led up to the big bang. One proposed explanation depends on brane theory, an offshoot of string theory, which is an offshoot of quantum theory. Before I give the explanation, think of a three-dimensional object, and for the sake of argument I will suggest a vegetable, a carrot. If the carrot is sliced through with a sharp knife, the intersection made by the knife is a two-dimensional shape, probably something like a circle or an ellipse. Now try to think of something, beyond our experience, something with four or more dimensions of space, which is called a ”brane”. The brane is very much bigger than our universe. Now think of something, again very big, slicing through the brane, similar to the way the knife sliced through the carrot. According to brane theory, our universe, with its three-dimensions of space, is the intersection caused by that slice through the brane. Brane theory is just one of many speculative theories. But there is no explanation of the beginnings of the brane.
Some scientists postulate that the material world began and developed through a natural evolution of universes. Lee Smolin, in his book The Life of the Cosmos suggested a continual process of new, slightly mutated, universes being produced out of black holes in pre-existing simpler universes. One version of string theory supports this idea. But such a sequence, indeed any concept of evolution or sequence, must imply a beginning, so the old question has not gone away – unless, perhaps, we accept the idea of an “infinitely small” beginning, as discussed earlier in relation to ancient Greek philosophy. But even then, we must ask how the process of transition from each form to the next could have come into being and how could change occur without there having been a previous time.
String theory, brane theory, loop quantum gravity, etc., are all arduous explorations into the far reaches of mathematics in search of the underlying nature of the material world. Although they are referred to as theories, they are still just speculations.
Two other answers to the question of the beginning of the material world propose that the universe began from nothing on the occasion of the big bang. A version proposed by the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking is that time did not exist before the big bang, and at the big bang the universe just came into being. The justification for saying time did not exist comes from Einstein’s theory of relativity. According to this theory, time “slows down” under the effect of the force of gravity – the stronger the force the slower the passage of time. (There is good evidence for this.) According to the theory, at places where the gravitational force is extremely great, such as at a massive black hole, time “stands still”. So that at the big bang (it is tempting to say ‘at the time of the big bang’) when all the mass of the universe was contained in an extremely small volume, time stood still. The next step of this argument is to claim that since time was standing still there was no such thing as time, so the universe appeared without there being a previous time. Therefore, since there was no such thing as a period before the big bang, there was nothing before the big bang.
So did anything happen immediately “after” the big bang when time was still standing still? If so, when did it happen and what made time “start moving”? I think Hawking’s argument is a self-contradiction. But even if it were to be accepted that time began with the big bang, there is no theory of how a physical process could have produced time out of a condition where time did not (previously?) exist. And Hawking still does not say how gravity and/or this huge mass occupying a tiny volume of space appeared out of nothing.
If there were no such thing as time there could be no such thing as motion, or of particles or of waves. There could be no vibrations of strings, no establishment of a field of force, no quantum fluctuations, and nothing could change.
A more recent argument appears in the 2012 book by Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. The explanation is that the material world arose from nothing, and then developed through a series of stages. This is not the same as Hawking’s approach. I think that by nothing Hawking actually means nothing, and Krauss means what scientists refer to as free space or the quantum vacuum.
I think that free space is very different from nothing. Free space has properties that determine the speed of light and the speed of gravity, and that produce quantum phenomena, such as subatomic particles continually springing up for a fleeting existence and then ceasing to exist. Free space is an integral part of the material universe. Also, I think that nothing cannot have any properties whatever, nor any potential to do or be anything. Nothing does not include any element of time, neither “time as we know it” nor any other possible kind. It has no characteristics whatever. There is no logical way that a theory based on nothing could be compatible with any of the assumed characteristics of the material world. This includes causation, which may be regarded as the operation of the fundamental elements of the universe.
If, alternatively, by nothing Hawking and the others had meant some already existing entity with the potential to change into “something” that could itself change, so as to become the material world, then they would need to explain the beginning of that first entity (irrespective of whether that entity were free space). If it did not need a beginning it would be very different from what we currently think of as possible in the material world. And anything that cannot be possible in the world is usually regarded to be absurd – or supernatural. Further, the idea of something arising out of nothing seems to be inherently unable to be tested.
However, since many of the things that a few centuries ago would have seemed absurd and inherently incapable of being tested have since been identified and demonstrated by modern science, it may be that things that would look quite absurd to us now will be commonplace in some future science. But in the meantime, the most hopeful thing I can say is that it might not be absurd.
Perhaps the issue of change and time is resolved by proposing that while what we call time and process and causality, etc., are properties of the material world, there is a supernatural entity that is not subject to these “restraints”, and this entity brought the material world into existence. For example, there is said to be no such thing as a beginning or a “how” of an eternal God. If God exists, then God just is (which is the meaning of JHWH, or Jehovah). But if the material world needs a beginning, why does the supernatural not need one? My tentative answer would be that if the supernatural exists it must have characteristics that seem illogical or unimaginable to us, including, perhaps, not needing to have had a beginning.
It is possible that the concept of time that I have presented here is naïve. Although it is a concept that most people take for granted, some solutions to some mathematical equations derived from the theory of relativity suggest that under certain conditions time becomes identical with the directions of space. If this is a true representation of the world, then the arguments I have made in this section may be invalid.
However, I think there is no reason to believe that every solution to every mathematical equation must reliably relate to an aspect of the material world. A simple example of where it apparently does not is Pythagoras’s theorem, which gives the calculation for finding the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle when the lengths of the other two sides are known. The theorem states that the length of the hypotenuse of a right-angle triangle is the square root of the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides. For example, if the lengths of the sides that make the right angle are three metres and four metres, then the length of the hypotenuse is the square root of 25 (i.e., of nine plus 16) square metres, which is five metres. But the number 25, like all numbers, has two square roots, and in this case they are five and minus five. However, I do not conclude from this that the length of one of the sides the triangle could be minus five metres.
This may be naïve, but I still maintain that it is correct. And the same applies to my position that not all solutions to all equations in physics must represent some aspect of the material world. I would, of course, change my position if evidence to the contrary were to be produced.
Another version of the material world arising out of nothing is that it arises out of mathematics, and that mathematics, it is argued, arises out of nothing. The idea implies that mathematics is intrinsically true. But, assuming that mathematics can describe all possible aspects of the universe, there is a vast difference between a description and the thing described. In this context, mathematics is just a lot of interconnected symbols with assigned properties and relationships. It is the observation of phenomena that puts a meaning to the symbols. And without meaning, while mathematics can it be shown to be consistent, cannot be shown to be true. (And mathematics cannot even be shown to be absolutely consistent.) This view of mathematics has something in common with my definition of the supernatural. I see no way of justifying or refuting it, but it does not constitute a case for the existence of the supernatural, nor is it an explanation of the material world.
A different connotation of mathematics arising out of nothing depends on the claim that mathematics can is justified by logic, specifically the branch of logic (or branch of mathematics) known as set theory. A set is a group of things that have something in common. The justification that mathematics arises out of nothing starts with the set that has no members. That set is said to represent the number 0. The set that contains only the set with no members has one member, and represents the number 1. The set that contains only the set with no members plus the set that contains only the set with no members, has two members, and it represents the number 2. The claim is made that by continuing from this start it is possible to derive the whole of mathematics. And since it starts from a set with no members it starts from nothing.
But set theory does not start from nothing: it starts from the concept of sets and the rules that apply to sets – and indeed, the concept of numbers. And it does not say anything about such things as forces, or distance or time. So, again, the argument that the material world arose out of nothing has no justification. (See also Chapter 11 The Reliability of Logic.)
The view about the status of mathematics that I favour, is that mathematics is an aspect of the material world, and that we discover parts of it in similar ways to those by which we discover parts of the material world, and we build structures with it that sometimes reflect the more tangible aspects of the material world and sometimes seem to have no relevance to it. But if mathematics is an aspect of the material world, did it precede the big bang or develop as the universe developed? If it was the latter, then mathematics did not arise out of nothing.
If it preceded the big bang, was it part of some material process that resulted in the big bang? If so, then the universe did not arise out of nothing. If mathematics is independent of mathematics, then is must be supernatural. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as the creator, put some people would.
(Knowing about the material world is dependent on observation of the material world, but this does not stop people imagining things that do not appear to be aspects of the material world. And similarly, being derived from the material world does not stop mathematics from venturing into areas that do not appear to be aspects of the material world.)
With all of these ideas of how the universe arose out of nothing there is another issue: where did all the energy and matter come from? One answer to this is given by Stephen Hawking in his world-famous book A Brief History of Time, where he says that the total mass plus energy of the universe is zero. This is explained by saying that the universe is pervaded by a negative gravitational energy which exactly cancels out all the other mass-energy. Hawking is by no means the only physicist to have held this view. (The term mass-energy takes account of the fact that according to the theory of relativity, and specifically to Einstein’s equation e = mC2, matter can be converted into energy and energy can be converted into matter.) So, according to this argument, the universe equates to nothing and always has been nothing.
But this claim is in contradiction with much of what is said about the present condition of the universe. It is in contradiction with another of Hawking’s statements in A Brief History of Time, where he describes a possible collapse of the universe under its own gravitational forces, and in contradiction with his description, mentioned earlier in this section, of the immense gravitational field at the beginning of the universe when time stood still.
The argument about the zero nett energy of the universe was first proposed before the problem of dark energy emerged. So if the calculations showed that it was true before we “knew” about dark energy, then it can’t be true now.
The question of the origin of the universe is now regarded to be one of the fundamental scientific mysteries. One characteristic of our universe is that differences always try to balance out: “water finds its own level”, temperatures tend to even out unless some energy is introduced to push them apart, batteries tend to get discharged. These are examples of the second law of thermodynamics, which is regarded to be a governing aspect of the universe. So the idea that the universe began in an enormously hot condition raises the question of how this could have happened. All the hypothetical suggestions so far just raise similar questions about themselves.
Beginnings of the material world pose another kind of problem. Physicists look at the downward progression from molecules to atoms; atoms to protons, neutrons and electrons; then to quarks and gluons and neutrinos; and then to ……what? Is time or space the underlying entity? Without time nothing could happen. Without space there is nowhere for anything to happen. But the question remains. There must be an answer to this, even if it is that the questions arise out or sheer human ignorance. But what would we ignorant of – some materialistic knowledge beyond human comprehension, or some supernatural entity?
And what determined the various fundamental numbers applying to these material entities? For example, the weight of a lump of metal depends on the mass of the metal, the mass of the Earth and the value of the universal gravitational constant. The value of the mass of the atoms of the metal and the value of the gravitational constant depend on …….what? If there could be an answer to such a question, that answer would immediately need an explanation. Could any material explanation stop the continual sequence of explanations? I know of no aspect of science that could provide a satisfactory explanation, so again I suggest that the answer just might need to invoke the supernatural.
This tentative justification for the existence of a supernatural entity should not be confused with the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is derived by associating the assumption of a purposeful (supernatural) creative agency with a particular set of observed phenomena, and then providing an explanation of the phenomena as a (circumstantial) justification of the assumption. In contrast, invoking a supernatural entity as a tentative explanation of the beginnings of the material universe is the outcome of failing to find a material explanation and looking for other possibilities. In this approach it is assumed that everything in the material world must have had an underlying cause, and that this leads to an impasse that must be resolved by invoking an entity that is free from the restraints that apply to the material world.
The traditional arguments for dualism seem unconvincing to me. Those that rely on evidence can be explained without the need to invoke a supernatural entity. However, both the Monists and the Dualists think the arguments support their own views. And the Agnostics think that no argument can support either of these two sides.
The Monists think that it is sufficient to show that the supernatural cannot be scientifically demonstrated or it is unnecessary in their scientific or philosophical view of existence. In the meantime, they talk, condescendingly, about “the God of the gaps”. That means, if there isn’t yet a sound scientific explanation for something, you might concede, temporarily, that it could be due to something supernatural. They claim that every new explanation results in fewer gaps. It is the expectation, or the belief, of Atheists that eventually all the gaps will be closed up, leaving no room for the supernatural.
The already closed gaps refer to such things as the causes of lightning or illness, the structure of the solar system (which does not now include Heaven somewhere above the earth) and the differentiation of species. Closing them disposed of certain claims of various religions but it did not dispose of the supernatural. Indeed, larger scientific gaps have opened. Some of these may soon be resolved in material terms, but at present there is no reason to be confident about whether they will be closed or will stay open.
Instead of proofs or hard evidence, I have suggested something that might stand up as a credible alternative to the strongest arguments of materialist Monists – three gaps that might never be closed. There might eventually be a way to demonstrate whether they are intrinsically unable to be explained by materialistic science.
The possible supernatural entity whose nature I have described may seem very grand. It enables inert matter to be alive, and/or accounts for the existence of consciousness, and/or was responsible for the existence of the material universe. But some people who believe in the supernatural would hope for more. In addition to an implied freedom from the constraints of space, time and causality that the material universe is subject to, they would like it to have such characteristics as watchfulness and compassion. I cannot deny that a supernatural entity could have these characteristics, but I see no reason to suggest that it should.
Indeed, it might be argued that any entity that could provide answers to issues of science, that is, of the material world, must operate under laws that are compatible with the laws of science. And that would mean that it was part of the material world and not supernatural. However, this argument relies on assumptions about the nature of the supernatural, which can never be substantiated.
Humanity can never expect to be able to explain everything, even in a purely material world. This might be because:
- just as cats and dogs, etc., lack the capacity to understand many things that we understand, we may lack the intellectual capacity to understand certain aspects of the world, such as, for example, time, and this might explain why we are finding modern science increasingly harder to understand, and more and more paradoxical;
- the limited ability of our sense organs may have cut us off from direct knowledge of aspects of the material world that are essential for our understanding of it;
- according to information theory, it is impossible for a part of something to contain as much information as the whole, so that means that it will always be impossible for humanity to know or understand all of the universe. So could we think of going beyond the material world?
But some Dualists believe that even if there were a scientific explanation of everything that we experience, it would not necessarily disprove the existence of the supernatural. They may be unconvinced by even a complete material explanation of inner feelings and convictions, which some Dualists believe are empirical evidence of the presence of the supernatural and of its difference from material.
The assumption that science will provide a materialist answer to all outstanding mysteries may be persuasive but it is not conclusive. It is merely a hopeful extrapolation of previous advances in science. The pro-supernatural arguments, based on subjectivity and the dilemma concerning beginnings, are speculative. But they cannot yet be refuted and they cannot yet show how a supernatural answer would be better than a material answer. But the definition of the supernatural given earlier leaves open all sorts of possibilities, including those unimaginable to us.
Where does all this leave me? If a few scientific breakthroughs closed all the gaps in our understanding, would that refute the existence of the supernatural for me? Well, I trust science on most matters, but not absolutely. Even if no scientific or philosophical dilemmas remained, would that indicate our final discovery of truth, or of our ignorance?
In the meantime, would I suggest a probability of the existence of the supernatural, say, 50%? The answer is no. No reasonable estimate of probability is possible without relevant evidence and some criteria to evaluate it, and I have neither.
To pursue the argument it may be helpful to consider what the supernatural, if it exists, would be like. This is the subject of the next chapter.