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No supernatural causes

By Eric Murphy

Posted September 26, 2005

Often proponents of intelligent design and/or creationism argue for the possibility of a "supernatural" agency being responsible for the evolution of living organisms. I'm going to argue that there's no such thing as a "supernatural" phenomenon. If a phenomenon exists (i.e., it's not imaginary or fictional), then by definition it is a natural phenomenon. If a phenomenon actually can be shown to violate a particular "natural law," i.e., a law of nature, then we're wrong in thinking that the "law" it supposedly violated is, in fact, a natural law.

It wouldn't be the first time a "law" of nature was overturned or modified. From Newton's time up until the first decades of the 20th Century, it was believed that the "law of conservation of energy" (the law stating that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only changed in form) was a law of nature. But Einstein showed in 1905 that matter can be converted into energy, via, for example the detonation of a thermonuclear bomb. It became clear that the "law" of conservation of energy was not really a law of nature at all. The law of "conservation of mass-energy" seems, so far, to be an actual law of nature. While matter and energy can freely be converted into each other and back again, the sum total of all the mass and all the energy in the universe has always been and always will be the same. Mass-energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only changed in form. (But if at some point, violations of the law of mass-energy are found and can be confirmed, then we'll have to rethink this law's status as a true law of nature.)

So again: there is no such thing as a "supernatural" phenomenon. A phenomenon either exists, in which case it is natural, or it doesn't, in which case it is either imaginary or fictional.

Let's take an example. Let's say that ghosts exist. Let's imagine that ghosts are not hallucinations, that they're not cases of mistaking mental illness or bad oysters or too much alcohol or too little sleep for an actually-existing manifestation.

Well, if ghosts exist, then by definition they are natural phenomena. How could they be anything else?

Now, one could argue today that ghosts, if they do exist, are not explained by any known natural or scientific law. However, 100 years ago science had absolutely no explanation as to how the sun could have shined for the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years it had to have existed.

Did that make the sun a "supernatural" phenomenon?

Of course not. It merely meant that science, up to that time, had not developed a workable theory that explained how the sun could shine for hundreds of millions, or billions, of years, without using up its entire supply of any then-known fuel. There was no known chemical reaction that could have powered the sun for that length of time. Without knowledge of thermonuclear fusion, science was at a loss to explain the sun's power output, and doubtless scientists of the time despaired of ever coming up with an answer.

Now, let's imagine that sometime next year, someone comes up with irrefutable proof that ghosts do in fact exist. Obviously, at this stage of the game, science would be at a loss for an explanation for how ghosts come to be. But, given time, and sufficient resources (perhaps the Pentagon would be interested in funding an investigation into the potential military uses of ghosts?), science would probably eventually come up with explanation for the origin and mechanism for ghosts. Ghosts would no longer be considered "supernatural" phenomena, but instead would come to be seen as a somewhat eerie and disturbing but otherwise completely explainable natural phenomenon.

Or perhaps it turns out that telepathy is an actual, real phenomenon. Scientists would immediately begin investigating the mechanism by which telepathy operates. They wouldn't merely accept the fact that telepathy exists, and move on to something else.

Now, in the same vein, let's assume for the sake of argument that God (or an "intelligent designer") actually intervenes on a more-or-less continuous basis (or maybe even once every couple of hundred or thousand years) into the evolution of living organisms. Is such an intervention, whatever its actual mechanism, a "supernatural" phenomenon? Absolutely not. It is merely an "unknown" phenomenon. Science is replete with "unknown" phenomena. Science has absolutely no idea how human consciousness arises from the structure of the human brain. No one has the slightest idea how many individual species inhabit the world. There are many areas of the human immune system that are a complete mystery to medical science. Most of the ocean floor has never been explored. No one knows if life exists anywhere else in the universe. We don't even know how to reconcile the two great theories of 20th Century physics, General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. [1] In short, what science does know about the workings of the universe is dwarfed by what it doesn't know.

(This points out one of the central difficulties with Intelligent Design as a hypothesis. Intelligent Design is essentially an hypothesis by elimination. In other words, if all possible explanations for evolution which do not involve design can be eliminated, then the only remaining explanation for evolution is Intelligent Design. But how can Intelligent Design, even in principle, eliminate all possible explanations for evolution that do not implicate design? As I said, what science knows is dwarfed by what it doesn't know, and certainly William Dembski, et. al. cannot claim that science has identified all possible chance-mediated explanations for the evolution of any particular biological structure. But until science has done so, there is no way that Intelligent Design can be said in any sense to be proven!)

But if evolution in living organisms is mediated by some sort of "intelligent designer," such mediation is unquestionably a "natural," as opposed to a "supernatural," phenomenon. Of course, there's no guarantee that science would be able to figure out how the mechanism would work. But if Intelligent Design wants to be taken seriously as a real scientific theory of evolution, it's going to have to at least come up with an hypothesis. (Does an intelligent designer use some sort of quantum effect to manipulate the genes of living organisms? Is it a form of radiation, intelligently directed, that causes point mutations to DNA in living tissue?) But the point is, the effort must be made. And so far, there doesn't seem to be any sign that the proponents of Intelligent Design have taken even the first baby steps in that direction. From what I can tell, it doesn't appear that the question has even occurred to them.


[1] Both theories have been experimentally confirmed beyond all possibility of doubt. Nevertheless, the two theories appear to be incompatible, and indeed on a fundamental level seem to be mutually contradictory. Combining the two was the chief aim of most of 20th-Century (and now 21st-Century) physics.

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