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No supernatural causes
By Eric Murphy
Posted September 26, 2005
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
In short, what science does know about the workings of the
universe is dwarfed by what it doesn't know.
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
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!)
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.
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.