Adam I. Gerard


Summarizing several thoughts on the subject of naturalism, physicalism, and supernaturalism.

Science, The Unexplained, Supernatural

The unexplained is ubiquitous and fundamental. Even within the vast realm of science and at the borders of its regime of rationality. The process of the expansion of knowledge is to at once stake out some territory within these mysterious realms but only to see such mysteries enlarged, widened, and engulfed by deeper ones.

In the manner depicted outside Hell in the Inferno of Dante, so too do our axioms and cogito beliefs shift the moment we come to assert them.

To claim a parcel of ground in this murky expanse is just to lose it...

As such, faith in some foundation is never faith in the new periphery. And, the unexplained is a periphery upon which all robust knowledge systems yet rest.

And, still yet the unexplained is not yet the supernatural...

It is not faith which provides the foundations at the bottom, not dogma but the fascination with the unknown, the strange, the alien, the weird.

We are beholden to the spectre of the new.


Read: Is Dark Matter Supernatural? and: methodological naturalism.

Sean Carroll writes:

[There are at] least three possibilities [for defining "supernatural"]:

  1. The silent: things that have absolutely no effect on anything that happens in the world.
  2. The hidden: things that affect the world only indirectly, without being immediately observable themselves.
  3. The lawless: things that affect the world in ways that are observable (directly or otherwise), but not subject to the regularities of natural law.

These are great and fun. There are two major and interesting lines of thought in the article:

  1. How Dark Matter and its "nature" fall within traditional distinctions between Ontological Naturalism, Physicalism, Materialism, and Methodological Naturalism; and
  2. What "supernatural" amounts to.

Matter and Mass

Elsewhere, I've argued that the discovery that Mass is a byproduct of particles interacting with the Higgs Field (the Higgs Boson imparts Mass on particles interacting with the Higgs field) suggests that Mass and hence, Matter are not fundamental.

Additionally, there are other more mundane and widely-accepted particles and physical phenomena that were already known to lack Mass (Photons, etc.).

Note: I have not stated that Mass is equivalent to Matter. Matter is a somewhat elusive notion that also has a particular phenomenological aspect to it (something we can touch, feel, interact with).

Materialism is therefore false for many other reasons.

Naturalism and Ontology

The great article "How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism: Philosophical misconceptions about Methodological Naturalism" has a very good set of distinctions for Methodological Naturalism (MN) and Ontological/Metaphysical Naturalism (ON):

Ontological Naturalism should be distinguished from the more common contemporary view, which is known as methodological naturalism. The methodological naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world – typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them – and indirectly to what those methods discover. (Pennock 1999, 191)

Physicalism and Materialism fall under the umbrella of Ontological Naturalism. Materialism is almost certainly false. Physicalism also enjoys a dubious distinction.

Just what does "being physical" or "physicality" amount to?

Is it matter? The ontological commitments of physics (which include Imaginary Numbers as part of the quantum framework for instance)? Concreta?

I am a staunch methodological naturalist but have improved my views w.r.t. the ontic variety. To summarize, I have a modified meta-ontology that has helped me to clarify what I think "metaphysics" (the activity) amounts to (whether in science or math):

  1. Mathematics and metaphysics overlap much more than thought by thinkers since Plato (who sharply divided the concrete from the abstract). These concepts blur and the constituent members of these categories also overlap.
  2. Metaphysics is less about "ultimate reality" and more about building powerful "models" (the use of this term invites a lot of confusion) which I've described in more detail here.

Philosophy and the Supernatural

The concept of the "supernatural" (when left undefined) attains an aura of mystery (beyond the mysterious nature that the concept denotes of things). To be more precise:

  1. Just what 'supernatural' denotes would be the category of entities that are supernatural (per the above). It's a trivial tautology to say that such things are "weird" or "strange".
  2. There's also the ambiguity, obfuscation, and general confusion around the term which invites additional "weirdness" (it's "weird" but it's "even weirder" to not know why it's "weird").

This shroud of mystery diminishes in "weirdness" by one shade when we get a clearer understanding of what's going on through well-articulated definitions.

Once we have those, an interesting portion of philosophy can be recast within the definitions above:

  1. Wittgenstien's worries about the difficulty with the "picture theory" and other epistemic or logical woes fall actually fall under the silent (do not seemingly interact with the physical world), hidden (cannot perceptibly interact with us if our concepts about them are correct and are unobservable - a major criticism of empiricists), and are lawless (violating logical laws like non-contradiction). Thus, the scientific conception of language and reality is riddled with supernatural assumptions.
  2. Issues with the Correspondance Theory of Truth within the Truth Debate (underdetermined, unobservable, non-physical seemingly).

Dark Matter, Neoplatonism, and the Supernatural

Dark Matter is very strange given that its interactions (if our understanding is currently correct) are physical and natural but exist in a separate regimen than "ordinary matter".

Dark Matter harkens back to the Neo-Platonists with their distinction between kinds of Matter.

If Dark Matter remains impenetrable as a physical phenomenon (incapable of being interacted with directly), what reason do we have not to class it as hidden?

i. All of our instruments and observational systems are made of ordinary matter.

ii. Presumably all interactions we can have with Dark Matter can only be observed in or using ordinary matter as a rough proxy. (This fact has led some to doubt that Dark Matter and Energy are the best explanations for the observed expansion of the universe.)

Naturally Supernatural

Reframing what I've always thought about these topics (using the helpful and outstanding definitions provided by others above):

  1. If there were well-regulated (but not totally uniform) phenomena (lawless above) they would be supernatural (using the helpful definitions above - being lawless is sufficient for being supernatural).
  2. There is an ontological way to read this and an epistemic way.
  3. Ontological readings hold it that items deemed to be supernatural are due to their natures and not due to human ignorance, confusion, or lack of knowledge. Epistemic readings hold it that items deemed to be supernatural are so because we lack an explanatory framework to predict and understand them.
  4. Ontological readings are, I believe, less appropriate than epistemic readings here (due to the argument below).

That is, just as we have seen (and which has been popularly articulated), most formerly "supernatural" things have become understood through highly-sophisticated systems of predictible regularity.


  1. Humanity suddenly discovered that for all the doubt, incredulity, skepticism, etc. incantation, spell-casting, etc. has acquired over the years that incantation and spell-casting, etc. were real phenomena - that we could empirically observe these in a regular fashion given the same conditions.
  2. But, suppose further, that incantations and spell-castings each have clear conditions under which they succeed or fail - that they are governed by regularity. The incantations must be performed in a certain order or way for them to work, etc. (This is presupposed in ancient hoax texts proclaiming esoteric truth and knowledge - the claim to knowledge comes from a claim to knowing a certain method, procedure, ritual, or algorithm to produce the supposedly supernatural event.)
  3. But, each of these items would then just be an area of the world (the natural world) that hadn't been yet classed by a universal theory describing these regularities.

In other words, by induction, all "supernatural" events (so classed using the definitions above) that demonstrate regularity and predictability would likely be recognized as fully natural once the appropriate framework (mathematical, logical, linguistic, scientific, etc.) were to exist.

For example, magnetic levitation (used in ancient holy temples to suspend candles) was considered an act of supernatural and divine intervention (since no theory of electro-magnetism had yet been developed). Once electro-magnetism was widely understood, these formerly "supernatural" events were subsumed under our best current science.

So, "supernatural" events falling under the classificatory categories above are probably contenders for legitimate science provided they meet a few conditions:

  1. The Principle of Sufficient Reason.
  2. Regularity of the phenomena - given the same circumstances a likely pattern will unfold (e.g. - can be statistical but always mechanical - and counter-factual - not having some physical state X would prevent the other states from occurring).
  3. Predictability - given the regularity of the phenomena, we can predict what will unfold (this is claimed both of legitimate science and pseudo-science).

Astrology fails to be a branch of science because it cannot be falsified and makes inaccurate predictions that cannot be reproduced (among other reasons). If it did, it would be just a branch of cosmology or astronomy.

What would "supernatural" events be like that science could not circumscribe? Any phenomena for which The Principle of Sufficient Reason and regularity of the phenomena would fail. These would be inexplicable events lacking any explanation, cause, or intelligibility.

If there is a Divine Maker who fashions the world through direct interaction, these would fall under a legitimate area of science (applied theology in science fiction circles) provided that there were uniform, mechanical descriptions (per the above) that would describe how those interactions occurred (though some aspect of this might be veiled or hidden from human understanding).

i. The position of modern science is to never employ an appeal to an intelligent super-being in describing physical events unless there is no other reason that's sufficient to do so (naturalistic parsimony).

ii. My claim is not that we should use notions like intelligent design in scientific thinking but that even if we discovered the presence of a divine being, the interactions of that being with the world would be thoroughly scientific (though potentially of some variant kind) provided that the three prior conditions were satisfied.

iii. Many scientific thinkers, like Einstein, Mendel, and Leibniz, firmly believed in a scientific God.

This is an added shade of nuance to this debate.

Note: I do not believe that spell-craft or incantations (involving esoteric magic) literally are valid in any way. Though, quite humorously, as I've pointed out, many sciences are approaching some of these fantastical myths in terms of their power and practice...

Further Note: a second argument can be run here against any knowledge-based human activity that asserts to be both supernatural and non-scientific. If it involves knowledge-generation (prediction, regularity) then it is must be natural and scientific. If it is not natural nor scientific then it must fail the Principle of Sufficient Reason and cannot therefore be knowledge. This is a complementary argument to Popper's Falsification arguments.