The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist

I might have written about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if only because it’s a point of personal irritation:  there’s no such thing as the “supernatural.”

Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not necessarily saying I think there are no such things as spirits, magic, deities, psychic powers, or the like.  I strongly suspect that none of these things does exist, but my point is about categories of thought and terminology, not about the reality of proposed phenomena, and the term “supernatural” is inherently pointless.

This may seem strange coming from someone whose fiction usually contains elements of what we would call the supernatural.  Even my sci-fi often skirts the borders of that realm, and I write a lot of fantasy and horror—which genres more or less by definition involve the “supernatural.”  But only in fiction could the term really apply, because in fiction one can create things are outside any nature that we understand.  Within the universe described by those stories, though, the various magical powers and otherworldly horrors are not truly supernatural at all.  Within those stories, such things are parts of nature.

That’s the point that I’m really making.  If something exists—if there really are unquiet spirits of the dead, or angels, or demons, or if there are certain people who, by waving a wand and saying “reparo” can fix a broken pair of glasses—then those things are within the realm of the real world.  If they are real, then they are natural.  We may not understand them—it doesn’t even seem that the people in the Harry Potter books really understand the nature of their magic on any theoretical level—but anything that exists is natural.

If there are astrologers or psychics out there—we have no good reason to think there are, but leave that aside—then their abilities have an explanation, and follow certain laws and patterns.  How could they not?  If they were lawless, they would not be powers at all, and could hardly be useful.  Similarly, if there were to exist the capability to move objects with the mind, there would be forces and processes underlying it.  If “mind” were what creates the very reality we perceive, that fact itself would be an objective fact, which would exist whether we know it or not, and would follow its own set of laws—again, because otherwise it would simply be chaos.  I’m not talking here about chaos in the sense of something being in principle unpredictable because of its degree of complexity and its sensitivity to subtle variations in initial state.  I’m talking about old-school chaos, the ultimate state of entropy:  something so disorderly as to be incapable of being put toward useful work.

Even if there were a creator god, an omnipotent and omnipresent entity that built all that we see or can ever see, it would make no sense to call such a being supernatural.  Indeed, if such a being existed, it would be not merely be natural, but the most natural of all things.

It might be said that my quibble here is just about semantics; I’m irritated by the choice of words people give to matters that they don’t want to explain, and that they don’t want other people to explain, but I’m ultimately just arguing about word choice.  Everyone sort of knows what someone means when they say “supernatural,” after all.  But I see language as crystallized thought.  Sloppy language, imprecise language—poor language—leads to flaws in that crystallization, and those flaws multiply out to create detrimental outcomes that are difficult to predict (and here we arrive in the field of mathematical rather than just literary chaos), but which are far more likely to be detrimental than beneficial.

The term “supernatural” is a sort of escape clause that allows people to avoid having to explain or justify some proposed phenomenon by claiming that it is—against all logic—outside of nature.

There are many things about nature that we don’t understand.  There are probably many more things about nature that we will never understand.  Not one of these things is supernatural; they are simply areas of ignorance.  We can imagine many things that do not, and cannot, exist, and in that sense, they are not part of nature…but our imagination itself is natural.

If ghosts really exist, they are natural.  They probably don’t exist, but that doesn’t make them supernatural, it just makes them imaginary, or “fantastic” if you want a more grandiose term.  Similar reasoning applies to gods, demons, angels, magic spells, astrology, spoon bending, telepathy, clairvoyance, and the boogeyman.  If there really are Anne Rice-style vampires out there in this world, (I’d basically bet my life, with some regret, that there aren’t), then they are natural.  We might not know the laws of vampire physics, but that such laws would exist seems inescapable.

So, I enjoin you to eschew the term “supernatural.”  I mean…I guess it’s okay if you’re using it to refer to a genre of literature.  But if you’re claiming that something is true—even if it’s something about which you’re probably wrong—calling it supernatural doesn’t add anything other than an inherent contradiction.  You can do better than that.

Here endeth my grumpy old man rant for today.

One thought on “The “supernatural” does not, and cannot, exist”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s