Some of this chapter will cover similar ground to that of the previous chapter, but from a different perspective.
If there is a supernatural entity, what is it like? How do we know?
We all know a lot about the material world. We know things like fire being hot and objects falling if they are dropped. We know very many detailed things – about people and their societies, about the different types of plants and animals, and much more. And we have great volumes of information that we may call general knowledge or science. We know these things by having observed the world around us, and experimenting and discussing it with other people who have had similar experience of the material world, and by being taught, directly and indirectly, by other people. We don’t always agree on some of the details about the nature of the material world, but we have ways of testing and reasoning to try to resolve our different opinions.
People who believe in the existence of a supernatural entity may feel something that they firmly believe to be supernatural. But they do not experience the supernatural in the way that they and non-believers experience the material world. And they do not seem to have ways of testing and reasoning to try to resolve their different opinions, other than using examples from the material world.
Most of them have obtained their belief from the culture or family they were born into. They take for granted the prevailing ideas about the particular version they have been given, and if verification is needed of any details about the supernatural they can usually refer to some recognised authority, either a sacred text or a person recognised as authoritative.
There are many texts and other forms of information about the supernatural. But because there are many different religions, and many interpretations of the teachings of most religions, the different texts are in conflict on many matters and most of them are self-contradictory.
There is no way of checking most of the details of the texts about the supernatural, except those that are historical. Unlike the material world, the supernatural is not continually observable, and we cannot manipulate it in ways that might reveal what it is like. So there appears to be no intrinsic reason to believe any of the claims in the texts about the nature of the supernatural. But throughout history some people have looked for independent evidence or confirmation.
What kind of characteristics might a supernatural entity have, and how would they be discovered? A ghost, for example, might be able to become visible and move through a solid wall, and fairies to perform other types of magic, and, as some people claim, these things might sometimes be observed. But what is thought to be magic or a manifestation of the supernatural may be merely an unknown aspect of the material world, or an optical illusion or a flight of the imagination.
If the supernatural existed but did not interact with the material world in any way, then any attempt to describe it or its characteristics would be pure uninformed speculation. If it were able to and did interact with the material world, then any interactions that left a trace, even if the observed laws of science were not violated, might allow some of its characteristics to be described.
To be able to interact with the material world the supernatural would need to have some characteristics that were compatible with, but perhaps different from, those of the material world. An entity with none of its characteristics different from those of the material world would not be supernatural. So, if it exists, the supernatural must be intrinsically different in some ways from the material world.
There have always been wildly different ideas of what the supernatural is like. One belief is that it is the only thing that exists. This could mean that the material world, i.e., the entire universe, or the multiverse, is supernatural. This would describe the entity that Pantheists and some Buddhists believe in. It is still what most people think of as the material world, but it is thought about in a different way.
The supernatural may be thought to be conscious. Or it may be thought to be nothing but consciousness. I know of no way of refuting these beliefs, but also I see no reason to accept them.
A more common belief is that there is a supernatural entity that has unlimited power to see, hear, know and do everything in the material world and elsewhere – everything imaginable and unimaginable – but does not necessarily do everything. So the supernatural is intrinsically associated with every part of the material world and/or is infinitely superior to and encompassing the material world. These concepts are known, respectively, as immanence and transcendence. They do not necessarily mean that the supernatural created the material world and all that is in it, including us, but the claim is usually made that it did. Also, this entity is immortal and eternal. Immortal means never dying, in contrast to all the living material organisms of Earth. Everything that is material undergoes change, and dying is one aspect of change.
The concept of eternal has two connotations. One means everlasting, existing for an infinite length of time – always was and always will be, but changes can occur. The other connotation means being “outside of time”, with no such thing as a beginning and no such thing as an ending, no before or after. Our concept of change is that there is a “before” and an “after”. So to us, change, including creation, is intrinsically dependent on time.
This unlimited undying eternal entity is the active God of the monotheistic religions. Some of the more specific beliefs about this entity are that it:
- continually reads everyone’s mind;
- occasionally becomes visible to selected people and talks to them;
- has emotions;
- wants to be worshipped;
- prescribes rules that are to be obeyed;
- rewards and punishes; and
- takes care of people – “God is love”.
Other groups of things that are believed simultaneously about this supremely wise and powerful God are contradictory. One such group is that:
- each person was individually created by God;
- all that happens in the world is done at the will of God;
- God has given all humans the faculty of free will; and
- God will punish those who do not conform with his wishes.
Are such characteristics likely to typify something infinite and supernatural or something finite and material? Some of them make the supernatural a vastly extended version of a combined human hero, ruler and sage. Indeed, this supernatural seems to be mainly concerned with its own status, somewhat concerned with humanity, peripherally concerned with the rest of Earth’s biota, and totally unconcerned about anything beyond the solar system. For example, according to many of the various believers, this God has concerns about what people do or abstain from doing on particular days of the week, about what clothes they wear and about what things they say. Such concerns are not about the welfare of humanity in general or of individual people, but about particular wishes of God.
A God with unlimited power and knowledge would never be surprised, so would have no cause to be angry, and would have no need to be worshiped or served. (In what way is God disadvantaged if someone does not worship or serve or believe in him?). Being unlimited would mean, of course, that the supernatural could be vindictive, capricious and anything else. But, as discussed earlier, the concept of something being unlimited, i.e., infinite, is self-contradictory.
Descriptions of God sitting on a throne or being Father and Son, or having some of the less attractive characteristics of human nature, make him seem like a creature of a very specific period in time in a miniscule part of the solar system, which is an infinitesimally small part of the universe. Such a God would have seemed feasible when the world was thought to have the earth as its centre and the sun, moon and stars to be not very far beyond our reach. But this God does not seem so feasible if the universe is accepted to be as large as cosmologists have found it to be.
According to some religions, God has spent some time as a human being living as a member of a human community. In Christianity, Jesus, who was born to a Jewish woman in Roman-occupied Palestine was an incarnation of God. He believed in and was scholarly in Judaism, went around various communities preaching, performed miracles and was executed by crucifixion by the Romans. He arose from being dead and met with his disciples and later ascended to Heaven. The purpose of this incarnation was to establish a new relationship between God and humanity by which individual people could have their sins forgiven by repenting and believing in Jesus and God. This seems to be a very roundabout and ineffective course of action for an omnipotent omniscient God. But, as the saying goes, “God moves in mysterious ways”.
In the Hindu religion, the god Vishnu (one of three supreme gods or one aspect of the one supreme god) came to Earth as a human on several occasions. His most notable incarnations were as princes, Rama and Krishna. Both of these fought lengthy wars, Rama against evil demons, and Krishna as the helper of his friend Arjuna against evil humans. The main point of these incarnations seems to be to emphasise the difficulty and the inevitability of defeating evil.
Why, though, should anyone suppose that being supernatural implies having unlimited, or even “almost unlimited” characteristics? There are in fact beliefs about different and lesser kinds of supernatural entities. Some of these entities are associated with the unlimited God. The most notable of these is Satan, also known as The Devil, who tries to tempt those who believe in God to disobey God’s commands and God’s wishes. Surprisingly, God does not prevent Satan from doing this but punishes those who succumb to Satan’s temptations.
Other lesser kinds of supernatural entities include: the very human-like gods of ancient Greek, Roman and Norse religions; the Hindu gods; the benign and the destructive spirits associated with most other religions; the spirits of trees, watercourses, mountains and other topographical features; and the spirits of deceased people. These may:
- have magical powers;
- have many human or animal characteristics;
- be easily deceived;
- be invisible to human beings but sometimes become visible to selected people and talk to them;
- sometimes die.
Again, these mostly have the characteristics of the latter part of the history of planet Earth, and particularly of one recently evolved species, Homo sapiens.
Can any of these claims be validated?
The more detailed a description or explanation of something is, the more evidence is needed to justify it. And in all cases, any contrary evidence will need further explanation, which must be consistent with all other relevant information and explanation.
Some of the claimed characteristics just described may or may not seem improbable to us. But that is neither proof nor evidence about whether they actually apply to any supernatural entity. How would it be possible to know whether any supernatural entity that might exist would have any of the characteristics that are claimed?
People who believe in the existence of any kind of supernatural entity base their descriptions of it on a range of sources, such as:
- teachings, mainly from texts, which may have been very freely interpreted and embellished;
- implications inferred from characteristics of the material world.
But are these reliable sources? Where for example did the originators of the texts and oral teachings get their information? For the texts that relate to events that occurred before the existence of the earth, or of human beings, the only explanation is by divine revelation. But this becomes a circular argument. Furthermore, the texts of the different religions contradict each other and also are generally self-contradictory. And the texts contain details that have been shown by scientific and historical evidence to be incorrect. If the details are just metaphorical, then they cannot be taken as facts about either the nature or the doings of the supernatural.
The claimed evidence of the helpfulness or other actions of the supernatural relates to things like answers to prayers, or to fortunate or unfortunate coincidences, or to unusual occurrences that seemed significant. These can usually be readily and satisfactorily explained without invoking the supernatural, and such explanation undermines the argument that they are evidence of supernatural action. And since the apparent helpfulness is given or withheld capriciously, irrespective of the “worth” or beliefs of beneficiaries, the supernatural does not seem like a truly caring entity.
Many of the cases of claimed evidence seem unlikely acts for an entity that has the wisdom, powers and disposition attributed to the supernatural. For example, catastrophes are often said to be warnings. But it is seldom, if ever, clear who is being warned about what. When this is pointed out to believers, the common reply is, ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. But if God’s ways are mysterious, how does anyone know which acts to attribute to intervention and which to the normal, unpredictable, workings of the everyday world?
There are claims of people seeing or speaking with personages who are regarded in the various religions to be either aspects of God or God-like supernatural beings. Also, people claim to recognise images of such beings in natural phenomena that appear unaccountably, for example in cloud formations, shadows on fences, etc. There are similar accounts of these kinds of events in many of the texts.
Such claims presuppose some knowledge of the nature and appearance of the purported supernatural beings. The representations of these beings in paint and sculpture usually resemble the people of the culture that created them, or how such people imagined them. Descriptions of the supernatural beings in sightings usually resemble these representations. Many people become convinced that all or some such supernatural sightings are genuine. However, without prior belief there would be no reason to believe they are any more genuine than claims about abductions by extraterrestrial beings, whose descriptions generally resemble illustrations in contemporary works of fiction. Even if the reports of sighting were to be believed, they would tell little about the characteristics of any supernatural entity.
Aspects of the material world that are claimed to imply supernatural characteristics are that:
- the world is too beautiful, too wonderful or too complex to “have occurred by chance” or be the result of “mechanistic” natural processes, therefore the supernatural is a producer of beauty and of marvellous things;
- the material world needs the supernatural to impart life to, or be the actual life of, organisms in the material world (including successions of organisms, not necessarily all human, as in reincarnation);
- the material world needs the supernatural as the entity that provides consciousness;
- the supernatural was an agent, or the agent, that was needed to create the material world.
The arguments based on beauty and wonder are really about human characteristics. Our ideas about what is beautiful or wonderful or complex, and what is not, are partly dependent on our personal physiological characteristics and partly on what we are accustomed to. The arguments about complexity and process relate to the diversity of life forms on earth and aspects of the structure of the universe. They are known respectively as intelligent design and the anthropic principle.
As discussed in detail in Chapter 7 Intelligent Design as a Scientific Theory, there is no evidence to support the idea that all species on Earth were individually designed, presumably by a supernatural designer/creator. It has been effectively refuted by the theory of evolution, which is amply supported by evidence, and by the mathematics of probability.
The (“strong version” of) the anthropic principle states that the values of the fundamental constants, which according to science determine the nature and structure of the universe, are so precisely attuned to the production of planets that it all must have been designed and created by some supernatural entity. As discussed in detail in Chapter 3 Monism and Dualism – a case for the existence of the supernatural, I think the anthropic principle provides only a circumstantial argument for the existence of a supernatural entity. I think the scientific objections to the principle and the alternative scientific explanations of the same phenomena do not completely refute it. But the problem it purports to answer is not intrinsically insoluble to science, so I do not accept is as evidence of the existence of the supernatural.
So I think that none of these claimed justifications for the existence of a supernatural entity and its characteristics, as discussed above, are valid. I do not regard their likelihood, or lack of it, to be of importance, but it could influence some peoples’ opinions. I think that there is no compelling evidence for any of them, that there are good material explanations for most of them, and that none of them relate to matters that are intrinsically inexplicable by science. This does not mean that there can be no supernatural entity of any kind. It does not rule out all of the claimed characteristics, but it leaves little room for confidence in any of them. I think there are stronger arguments for the existence of some sort of supernatural entity, arguments that suggest characteristics that any such entity would need to have.
Three Possible Justifications for the Supernatural and its Characteristics
As discussed in the previous Chapter, Monism and Dualism: A case for the existence of the supernatural, there are three claims, implied from aspects of the material world, that I think might provide some justification for the existence of some kinds of supernatural entity and some of their characteristics. These relate to life, to consciousness and to beginnings. The significance I give these claims is that, while there is no conclusive evidence that they are true, they are alternative explanations for things that I think have no satisfactory scientific explanation, and may even be intrinsically beyond scientific explanation. Of course, many scientists and others are confident that sound scientific explanations will some day be provided, and if they were ever proved to be correct that would make any supernatural explanation redundant. Some scientists think satisfactory explanations have already been produced, but in previous chapters I have explained why I think there is good reason to dispute this.
In the meantime, these three things provide the only justification I can think of for believing that there might possibly be something supernatural, and for tentatively implying characteristics to it. In each case, it would be futile to ask how a supernatural entity could acquire the suggested characteristics, or how they would produce the required effects that I attribute to them. By definition, the supernatural is beyond the reach of material science.
I acknowledge that some people might think that there other, different, matters that are intrinsically beyond scientific explanation. These matters could require a supernatural explanation that might invoke quite a different entity from the one that I will now describe.
Each living organism and each living cell could be thought of as a functioning system. Its component parts interact. It has a subsystem that controls its operations. It has other subsystems that provide the repair functions and also the construction functions for repair, growth and reproduction. And it has a subsystem to take in energy and material from its environment to enable it to keep on functioning.
To a materialist, all that the cell or organism needs for it to be alive is for the system to be able to keep on functioning. In this view, the cell or organism is nothing more than a machine, even though it is composed of organic material, unlike the machines we manufacture out of inanimate and mainly inorganic materials.
But most people think there is a vital difference between a machine and a living cell or organism. No machine, no matter how complex and sophisticated it may be, starts operating independently as soon as its parts are capable of operating. No machine spontaneously finds and selects its own sources of energy and replacement materials, or repairs itself, or grows, or provides for and arranges its own reproduction, all while it is continuing to function as a machine.
Some people attribute this difference between inanimate machine and living organism to evolution. Others attribute it to the existence of a “life force”. This force, according to some, is an often-unrecognised (and still to be detected) part of the material world. To others it is a supernatural entity.
Unless or until it could be demonstrated that life is purely material, the characteristics if life (as we know it) suggest that the hypothetical supernatural would need to:
- be directly and separately associated with each living organism, or perhaps with each individual piece of living matter;
- be able to interact with certain assemblages of inanimate matter to make them alive – being alive meaning to exhibit the biological characteristics of metabolism, growth, reproduction and response to its environment;
- dissociate itself when an organism or a piece of living matter dies, i.e., is physically incapable of continuing to function.
(See also Chapter 8 When Does a Life Begin.)
There might have been an additional task that this supernatural entity needed to perform. It is generally assumed that life on Earth arose naturally from a progression of events, starting from relatively simple chemicals, and advancing to more complex structures and eventually becoming a primitive organism. However, some scientists think it would have been an extraordinarily unlikely process. It would have needed to produce and protect the basic requirements of living organisms – metabolism, reproduction, growth and response to the environment – while each was developing. So it could be argued that such an unlikely progression, which appears to have occurred only once on Earth, needed supernatural guidance.
Given that the lives of each organism, or even of each piece of living material, seem to be at least partially separate from those of the others, it would be reasonable to conclude that the supernatural can be divided into separate parts that are not completely in communication with each other, and not necessarily always in harmony.
If each living organism has a supernatural component, is it reasonable to conclude that each component would be in or near the same (material) space as the organism? I think that there is no reason to expect a supernatural entity to fit into the three dimensions of space (or the eleven dimensions of quantum space-time) of the material world.
If life on Earth needs a supernatural element, presumably any extraterrestrial life would need it also.
Unless or until it could be demonstrated that consciousness is purely material, a hypothetical supernatural component of consciousness would need to:
- be the entity that is the consciousness of each organism (as distinct from its intelligence);
- be able to be directly and separately associated with each individual conscious organism;
- be able to receive data from the associated organism;
- be able to have or produce sensations of consciousness associated with the received data (but this does not include being able to directly detect or produce sensations of consciousness of other aspects of the material world);
- possibly be able to transmit data to the associated organism.
Given that the consciousness of any organism seems to be at least partially separate from that of other organisms, it would be necessary to conclude that the supernatural can be divided into separate parts that are not (completely) in direct communication with each other, and not necessarily in harmony. This has something in common with those traditions of meditation that claim that what we think of as the self is part of a universal Self. The enlightenment that is said to come from meditation may relate to this Self, but it tells nothing about the content of the consciousness of any other selves. So it might be envisaged that, just as the material world can be considered as one entity whose components can combine in ways that allow individual stars, planets and organisms to develop, so might the supernatural also have corresponding processes in relation to both life as well as to consciousness.
Extensive tests strongly suggest that all human consciousness is completely dependent on the brain of each individual person, and presumably the same would apply to the consciousness of all other species. (See Chapter 9 The Hard Problem of Consciousness.) Therefore any supernatural entity that was separately associated with an individual organism would be unable to detect anything, or produce any sensations of consciousness other than what it derived from its associated organism.
There would seem to be no basis for any conclusions about why or how such an entity would produce consciousness.
The generally accepted scientific explanation of the beginning of the universe is the big bang theory, in which an infinitesimally small and intensely hot dense body of something began to expand, become less hot, and develop into matter, radiation and space. From this, clouds of hydrogen gas formed. Gravitational attraction then caused stars, planets, and other lumps of matter to develop in these clouds, and continued to produce the galaxies that comprise the universe.
This theory fits in well with most of what has been observed about the cosmos. In fact, the theory was developed to explain the observations. But further observations that were made after the theory was first developed have meant that it has had to be modified. Some issues, such as the nature of the force causing the continuing accelerated expansion of the cosmos, and the nature of the attractive force that is stopping the spinning galaxies from flying apart, have not yet been resolved. Also, there are some basic aspects of the Big bang theory that seem to be logically contradictory. These matters may or may not be able to be resolved, but I do not think they are serious enough to support a case for the existence of the supernatural.
These matters may or may not be able to be resolved, but I do not think they are serious enough to support a case for the existence of the supernatural.
There are two aspects of beginnings that I think might be intrinsically inexplicable to science. The first is how the antecedents of our material universe began, without which the Big bang could not have occurred. The other is the nature of the ultimate fundamental entity in the descending sequence: molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, strings, etc.
As discussed in the previous chapter, many cosmologists consider that time began with the big bang, 13.75 billion years ago. Before then, it is said, time did not exist. How then could there have been a big bang, because something previous would have been needed for it to happen? No time, no before and after, then no change. So presuming a beginning is a change, how did the material world begin without having a material predecessor?
After describing some of the (weird sounding) findings of modern physics in the discussion of the differences between atheism and agnosticism in Chapter 1, I posed the rhetorical question, ‘So what else is there?’ The materialist answer suggested some new kind of physics, and, perhaps, should have included ‘for example, some new type of physics that can allow change without time existing’. (The alternative answer suggested something supernatural.)
After describing some of the (weird sounding) findings of modern physics in the discussion of the differences between atheism and agnosticism in Chapter 1, I posed the rhetorical question, ‘So what else is there?’ The materialist answer suggested some yet-to-be-discovered aspects of the material world. I will now suggest that those aspects would need to be part of some new type of physics that would allow change without time existing’.
There is no satisfactory material explanation of how time could have begun. There is no satisfactory material explanation of how the universe and its antecedents could have begun. There is no suggested kind of physics that could allow any kind of change to occur without the existence of time.
For a supernatural entity to be the explanation for material beginnings, that entity would need to have:
- the ability to exist without there being a beginning;
- the ability to produce change without there being any “before” or “after”,i.e., there being no such thing as time;
- the ability to produce time;
- and perhaps the ability to produce or do something without there being an underlying cause.
But there is still the question of the underlying nature of whatever the material world is made of. To be the source of this, the supernatural would need to have one additional property:
- the ability to produce fundamental forces and constituents of the material world that had no underlying causes or components but could change and develop greater complexity.
These three characteristics are clearly different from those of the material world as we presently understand it.
I think this would be the limit to what could be deduced from attributing the existence of the material world to the supernatural. This is compatible with what many people attribute to God. But they usually add other characteristics that I think are unjustifiable – but not necessarily untrue.
There need be no implication that the supernatural must be somehow greater than the material world, because small and simple things continually develop into large and complex things. As an example, consider a seed growing into a tree. However, this is a complex process depending on very specific prior conditions and special environmental requirements that already existed and were greater than the tree. Whatever the initial “seed” was, it would need to have the potential to develop into the vastness and complexity of the universe. Perhaps, as with cellular automata, a complex world could have developed inside some bland kind of supernatural matrix. (Cellular automata, which are very simple graphical simulations of continued generations of reproduction, are illustrated in “The Game of Life”, and in A New Kind of Science? by Stephen Wolfram.)
The previous paragraph gives illustrations from the material world to speculate about how the supernatural might do the various things that I have used to justify its possible existence. But there would be no basis for any conclusions so specific about an entity that, by definition, is intrinsically different from the material world, or for conclusions about how or why a supernatural entity would do anything. Indeed, the concepts of how and why might not constrain or be relevant to the supernatural.
Nevertheless, the three characteristics associated with beginnings would mean that the supernatural could cause the development of a diverse range of forms within and beyond itself, and which would become the material world. This might seem like what is envisaged by most people who believe in the existence of the supernatural. But it does not specify a ready-made universe, complete with inhabited planets. It does allow for the development of the universe and all of its antecedents and other possible universes, and for all else that science might discover. The material world that was produced by the supernatural would be restrained by such things as time and cause and substance, which were also produced by the supernatural but did not constrain it. In other words, the questions what is it made from?, how did it come into being? and what preceded it? would not arise. This may sound odd. But it has to be odd.
How many supernatural entities are there?
The three possible justifications I have presented for the existence of the supernatural require three different types of characteristics, which might suggest three distinct supernatural entities.
For there to be an entity whose purpose is to give life to a material organism, there would need to be a material world for that organism to inhabit. So a life-giving supernatural would be dependent on there also being a supernatural that was capable of producing a material world that could allow the development of structures that could have the biological characteristics of life. It would be reasonable to assume that the one entity provided both functions.
Similarly, a consciousness-producing supernatural would need something, presumably material, to provide the content of the consciousness. And because, as is discussed in Chapter 9 The Hard Problem of Consciousness, the supernatural consciousness is unable to detect the material world directly, there would need to be material life forms with sensory organs and brains or some equivalent kind of organs that it could read.
But what if life was some supernatural entity that could exist independent of a material body, like an immortal soul or the entity that is said to continue through a series of incarnations? Such an entity would have no consciousness of the material world.
So, assuming that a supernatural entity produced the beginnings of the material world, this same entity would also be the entity that had the ability to develop the essence of consciousnesses, and maybe individual lives. It would seem therefore that these abilities would be used to induce organisms to emerge in the material world when conditions become appropriate, and to provide those organisms with the ability to produce intelligence and acquire consciousness.
Such a cosy complementarity between the supernatural and the material looks a bit like the supernatural creating the material world “in its own image” – or vice versa. Many people would think the latter alternative is more credible. But I think that our present concept of the material world does not allow any credible explanations of how consciousness could arise from material processes or how the material world could have begun. (I am not so sure about whether there could already be a material explanation of the difference between inanimate and living matter but will discuss this later in this chapter.)
Implications of Beliefs about the Supernatural
Actively believing in the existence of a supernatural entity usually has an effect on how the believers live their lives. The kind of effect depends on what they believe about the supernatural. Belief in a god demanding obedience and imposing eternal reward and punishment will have a different effect from belief in a benign god or some kind of merely functional supernatural entity. Atheists, of course, are not concerned about any purported characteristics of the supernatural, but should they be? And what about Agnostics?
Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, put forward a proposition that applies to anyone who does not believe in the existence of the supernatural – the supernatural that Pascal had in mind being the Christian God. The proposition, known as Pascal’s wager, is that it would be rational for undecided people and for Atheists to live their lives as if they really believed in God. If God did not exist, then they would not have lost much by living in this way, and it would not matter after they died. But if God did exist, then after death they would spend eternity in Heaven by having lived as if they believed, and in Hell if they had not.
This argument depends on the following assumptions:
- we cannot deny that God exists and that there are also conscious supernatural entities which are really the essences of each of us, and they survive after our bodies are dead;
- and that if God exists he would either
- be aware of our acts but not of our beliefs, or
- would be happy for someone to obey all the his divine requirements without believing in his existence (which is not what the New Testament says in Mark 16:16).
Agnostics are betting that any possible supernatural will be benign. The picture of it that I have been painting contains none of the frightening things and also none of the very attractive things that many believers think will happen to us after we die. If my picture is right, then the very most that could be assumed is that after death of the body “our” piece of supernatural might survive us. Here are some atheistic and my agnostic-dualistic answers as to how much of that personal bit of supernatural might survive, and how it would fare after the death of its material body.
Atheistic Answer Concerning Life and Consciousness: Since the life and the consciousness of an organism are nothing other than the operations of the material systems of its body, then there is no life or consciousness remaining after the death of its body. This implies that death is not considered to occur until the material organism is incapable of being resuscitated or of having any brain function.
(Some people believe that some time after death their body will be resurrected. But after death, all the connections within the brain and body that constituted the store of memory and feeling are quickly destroyed as the body disintegrates. When we are alive, any damage to the brain cells that store memory results in permanent loss of the affected memories (even though the brain can be trained to store new memories and some lost motor functions). So for memories to be recovered after death, it would be necessary to assume that there is some supernatural store of all the memories of all people (or all organisms) that had ever lived, with a register of what memories belonged to what person. The atheistic view of this is that there is no reason to believe that any supernatural entity would do this. In the case of purported reincarnations, the evidence is that someone claiming to have had a previous life can actually “remember” very little about that life, and even that usually sounds implausible.)
Dualistic Answers Concerning Life: If the difference between inanimate matter and a living organism is that the life of the organism depends on the presence of a supernatural entity, then the answer would depend on the relationship between the supernatural and the body.
If the relevant supernatural element existed as a separate entity independent of the organism, as in reincarnation or resurrection, then presumably it could continue after the death of the organism. However, if it had no attribute other than to make a specific piece of inanimate matter alive, then there could be no possibility of it appearing to human beings or speaking with them until or unless it inhabited another organism.
If the relevant supernatural element came into existence or was assembled for the single purpose of giving life to a particular organism, then there may be reason to think that it would continue after the death of the organism, but it would need an act of faith for anyone to think that it would. But if it did continue, it might revert to being just part of whatever the supernatural is, just as the dead body reverts to being just inanimate matter. And even if it remained differentiated, unless it had other characteristics then there could be no possibility of it doing anything, such as appearing to human beings or speaking with them.
If the supernatural entity did nothing but confer life, then if it persisted after death it would have no memory or consciousness, so it could not be rewarded or punished.
Dualistic Answers Concerning Consciousness: If the relevant supernatural element existed as a separate entity independent of the organism, as in reincarnation, then it could continue after the death of the organism. With reincarnation, the following life could have the form of a person with a very different personality or of a non-human organism. As mentioned above there is no reason to believe that people actually remember previous lives, or have had them
If the relevant supernatural element came into existence or was assembled for the purpose of giving consciousness to the particular organism, then there may be reason to think that it would continue after the death of the organism, but it would need an act of faith for someone to think that it would. If it did continue, unless it could have memories relating to the deceased organism, it would have nothing to communicate to human beings.
If the memory of an organism is intrinsically dependent on the material processes of the organism’s brain and body, for which there is strong evidence, then, unless the body was resurrected in the exact form from some relevant time of their lives, the memories might be restored, the supernatural entity would have no memory about the deceased organism. It would have nothing to communicate to human beings. But if the body were faithfully resurrected the memory might be also.
If the supernatural entity persisted after death with no memory, then rewarding or punishing it would be pointless, even if it retained its capability of consciousness. But if all awareness depends entirely on the operation of the sensory organs and the brain, which are inoperative after death, no experience of reward or punishment would be possible. However, if, despite the findings of science, memory and consciousness were not totally dependent on brain and body, they might continue in a supernatural component after the material death of the organism. In such a case, rewards and punishments could not be ruled out. (But what would be the purpose in some supernatural entity rewarding or punishing other supernatural entities for the actions of a deceased material organism?)
There are conditions under which people are said to “lose consciousness”. One such condition is when they go to sleep. But sleep is a complex thing, with different kinds of brain activity, sometimes without consciousness and sometimes with consciousness in the form of dreams. Other conditions whereby people lose consciousness are when they faint, or are in a coma, or are completely anaesthetised. All occasions of consciousness and all occasions of losing consciousness have to do with the functioning of the brain. There would seem to be no reason to think that whenever we lose consciousness there was some supernatural partner along with the brain, or that that partner was also needed to produce consciousness.
So if there is no consciousness after the brain has ceased to function and then disintegrated, then there is no pain, no anguish, just oblivion.
Dualistic Answers Concerning the Beginnings of the Material World: I think that there would be no way of conjecturing what might happen to an organism after death as a consequence of the beginnings of the material world being produced by a supernatural entity (except for the effects associated with producing life and consciousness as discussed above.)
With Pascal’s wager, the betting is about the probabilities of each of the imaginable characteristics of a possible supernatural. Should we be frightened by the possibility of a horrendously cruel supernatural? Some believers are. Atheists are not. Since Agnostics do not rule out the possible existence of some supernatural entity, they may have personal ideas about the probability that it would be horrendously cruel and would carry memory, consciousness and responsibility after material death.
The “God of the Gaps”
The attributes I suggest above provide only a sketchy description of any supernatural entity that might exist. It might seem possible to treat them like axioms and draw further conclusions. But such conclusions would rely on a logic that may be inappropriate to such an entity. In any case, it is hard to see how they could lead to the kind of supernatural entities envisaged by most believers.
Atheists would say that as scientific findings have progressively undermined such beliefs as attributing lightning, bad harvests, sickness and healing to the supernatural, all that is left are the things that have as yet no scientific explanation. So when these remaining “gaps” are filled in by further scientific discovery, the credibility of the possible existence of a supernatural entity will have been destroyed. In this argument any remaining supposedly justifiable supernatural entity is known as “the god of the gaps”.
I have presented a possible supernatural entity as a solution to perceived shortcomings of twenty-first century science. My tentative suggestions provide another version of the God of the gaps. They could be demolished by advances of science, or reinforced if further cases arise that science is intrinsically unable to address.
Some scientists and philosophers are confident that material explanations of life and consciousness are already available, or soon will be. Some physicists think a satisfactory physical explanation of the beginning of the material world has been or will be produced. As explained elsewhere, I do not think their explanation is valid.
A few other physicists, for example Marcelo Gleiser in his recent book Imperfect Creation, think that science as we now envisage it may be intrinsically unable to solve some of its other present mysteries. In the present concept of science the universe is unified and consistent in all of its characteristics. (This, in fact, is view of science that I have presented in other parts of this book, and which except for a few crucial mysteries seems to be justified.) But Gleiser argues that there is no reason to think that, for example, the phenomena described by the theory of relativity and by quantum theory should all be able to be covered by one single unifying theory. He would also suggest that by accepting that there may be other independent theories describing different material aspects we may gain new insights into the present mysteries. He is a distinguished scientist and his arguments go into the fundamental details of physics and cosmology, so this is not a crack-brained idea.
The relevance of this to the nature of the supernatural is that not only do relativity and quantum theory seem to be incompatible, but that are based on apparently different kinds of assumptions. So a material theory of beginnings might be feasible even if it is based on assumptions like those that I have attributed to a possible supernatural entity.
The special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity are based on assumptions that seem reasonable but both theories lead to conclusions that seem unreasonable. The special theory is based on the assumption that if phenomena on some distant moving object such as another planet are observed from Earth, the same laws of physics will appear to apply both on the moving object and on Earth. However, this leads, through logical mathematical reasoning, to the conclusion that, for example, the mass of a moving object increases when it moves and the increase depends on the object’s speed. This is where the famous equation e = mc2 comes from, and also the statement that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. It also leads to the conclusion that “time travels more slowly” for a moving object than for a stationary one. This conclusion is often illustrated in the example of someone leaving on a long fast journey into space and on finally returning to Earth is now younger than their twin brother or sister who stayed home. Weird as this may seem, the principle has to be taken into account when calculations are used by the GPS navigational system. This system works by measuring the times taken for radio signals to reach the user’s GPS equipment from three earth satellites, and from this information calculates the location of the particular piece of equipment.
The general theory of relativity is based on the assumption that the gravitational attraction of the mass of an object is another aspect the of, or is “equivalent to, the “inertial” effect of the object. The inertial effect is that energy is needed to move an object or to change its motion. This theory gives rise to the concept of space-time, which means that, in some ways, time is a dimension similar to space. The theory of relativity has been confirmed by measurement. It is used in cosmology, and must be taken into account in some technologies.
Quantum theory is based on the assumption that energy comes in separate “parcels” and that there are specific allowable values in the amount of energy in each parcel. In other words, there is not a continuous range of values of energy, just the specified amounts – a bit like the whole numbers with no fractions or decimals allowed in between. However, the individual amounts of energy can be extremely small. One conclusion from this is that mass, space and time also are not continuous but “granular”. Other seemingly untenable conclusions in quantum theory are mentioned elsewhere in this book. They have almost all been shown to be correct by measurement. The theory underlying modern electronic devices is based on them.
If new evidence and/or new theory were to give credence to Gleiser’s ideas, then it might be necessary to dismiss more of our present commonsense assumptions about the material world. It might be admissible to accept that the characteristics that I have provisionally attributed to the supernatural, such as existing without having had a beginning, or producing life and consciousness, are possible in the material world.
If, as Gleiser suggests, there were to be two separate interworking but not entirely compatible material entities, one being explained by the theory of relativity and the other by quantum theory, then our usual assumption would be that there would have to be some underlying unifying principle that encompassed both. And if there were to be material explanations for what I have referred to as the beginnings of the material world, we might assume that they also would be encompassed by this same underlying principle. But, as Gleiser points out, all this is just assumption. We think such unity is a nice idea, but why must it be correct? If it is not correct, this might leave room for a separate supernatural entity. Or it might mean that there is more than one kind of material entity.
I will now make some suppositions.
Suppose that relativity and quantum theory can never be united into a single self-consistent theory because they describe separate entities that together comprise the material world.
Suppose that there is a separate theory that describes consciousness in the same way that relativity and quantum theory describe the material world. And we might be able to discover only the vaguest glimpse of this theory.
Suppose that there are other separate and independent theories that can explain the beginnings of the material world.
Because some of these theories were beyond what we could know about the material world, would they be describing the material world or the supernatural? Would this suggest that everything we thought might be supernatural would be subject to such theories?
If the supernatural can have the characteristics I have suggested, why cannot the material world have them also? A materialist answer is that science will ultimately discover that the material world does have whatever characteristics are necessary to explain all observations of all aspects of the universe. The dualistic answer is that the material world cannot, and that is because the supernatural is separate and independent and intrinsically different. I think both sides have some way to go before they can make a plausible case.
Here is a thought experiment to help look at these issues.
Think of a species of organism with about the same intelligence as human beings and about the same cultural and intellectual development, but only a minimal ability to detect or experience light. These organisms – we could think of them as a different kind of people – might have some vague idea of the direction any light was coming from but would be completely unable to focus it. They would not be able to imagine what light or seeing was like.
They might have evolved in a very dark place similar to the ocean of liquid methane on Saturn’s moon Titan, and the ocean might be covered with a thick layer of water ice. They could have a vast amount of knowledge of the world around them by having highly developed ways of sensing their environment. For example, they could have a very sensitive sense of touch, and the ability to “see” their environment using sonic radar. Species on earth can sense their environment and the location of their prey through the turbulence of the water around them, by variations of electric voltages or of acidity or of other chemicals. So these people could have very precise and detailed resolution of their environment and their location in it.
But without the use of light they could know nothing of the cosmos. They could never develop the theory of evolution or quantum theory, both of which depend on phenomena related to light. They might not know enough to think that there were any scientific mysteries, and therefore would not have any reason to believe there was “something else”. Or they might have their scientific mysteries, some of which could be resolved by our science but which they might ascribe to a supernatural entity.
(According to the theory of relativity, no object can ever travel faster than the speed of light. In Einstein’s equation e=mc2, which defines the relationship between mass and energy, the letter c represents the speed of light. Might it be feasible to assume that an equivalent to Einstein in this Titan-like world could derive a similar theory of relativity incorporating the speed of sound in place of the speed of light?)
Now think of a different species of organism. The members are more than ordinary people; they are “superpeople” who can sense their environment in all the ways that humans can, but can also detect aspects of the world that we cannot imagine. They have developed a high culture and an advanced science. These people can understand how consciousness is produced and how there can be something that does not need to have a beginning. But they could still have scientific mysteries. Some members might believe in a supernatural entity.
Is it reasonable to think that a species could develop that would be able to know everything about how the world works? Could such a species know whether it knew all there was to know? Would that mean that there was nothing apart from the material world? I don’t think we or any organism could conclusively answer these questions.
There has been a tendency, going at least as far back as the bronze age, for humanity to think that it has just discovered the ultimate truth. This was nicely put in the 18th century in Alexander Pope’s couplet:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night.
God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light.
But there is still a lot of darkness about many of “Nature’s laws” – and also about the supernatural.