The Shrinking Supernatural Domain

There’s not much new in this article we found in Scientific American, but it’s certainly worth a look. The title is Is it possible to measure supernatural or paranormal phenomena? It was written by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

The history of science has beheld the steady replacement of the paranormal and the supernatural with the normal and the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are currently known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are today sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics and risk.

As we’ve all noted before, the God of the gaps keeps getting squeezed. But there’s still some wiggle room. We’re told:

If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for such paranormal forces as ESP or supernatural agents like God? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover?

Well — is it possible? Let’s read on:

According to California Institute of Technology physicist Sean Carroll in his intensely insightful book The Big Picture (Dutton, 2016), “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life — objects, plants, animals, people — are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.” Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.

This is the book at Amazon: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. We’ve written about Sean M. Carroll a few times before — for example, see Creationism: The Debate About The Debate. Scientific American continues:

But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminiferous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong theories combined. The reason has to do with the relation of the known to the unknown.

Let us know if you find the next excerpt persuasive:

As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow — the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the increase in the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. Therefore, as the radius of the sphere of scientific knowledge doubles, the surface area of the unknown increases fourfold, but the volume of the known increases eightfold. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science.

Thought provoking, but it won’t convince a creationist. Moving along:

Carroll concludes that the laws of physics “rule out the possibility of true psychic powers.” Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate or read minds, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”

That’s likely to be true. Another excerpt:

What about a supernatural God? Perhaps such an entity exists outside nature and its laws. If so, how would we detect it with our instruments? If a deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, that would make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer.

And a planet flooder too. On with the article:

If God used unknown supernatural forces, how might they interact with the known natural forces? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? Whence the supernatural?

Good questions. And now we come to the end:

It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject paranormal and supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation because such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle.

We know a few websites that could benefit from this article. But even if they do read it, it won’t have any effect.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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11 responses to “The Shrinking Supernatural Domain

  1. Famous christian theologian Dieter Bonhöffer formulated it better.

    “How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

    Letter, 1944.
    It’s very amusing to confront creationists with this quote.

  2. I have Sean Carroll’s new book on my list of things to get. It sounds fascinating.

  3. realthog: I have it and it is. Hope you enjoy it.

  4. James Chapman

    FYI, Sean M. Carroll, the paleontologist, is not the same person as Sean Carroll the physicist and author of The Big Picture.

  5. @James Chapman


  6. BTW, has anyone seen Francisco Ayala’s latest book, “Evolution, Explanation, Ethics and Aesthetics: Towards a Philosophy of Biology”?

  7. has anyone seen Francisco Ayala’s latest book

    No, though I read, enjoyed and respected what I think was his first book. It reminded me very strongly of the Jesuit priest who married me and my first wife: he had a lot more in common with atheist me than he did with the catholic family I was marrying into. (Please don’t misunderstand: they were good people. Just not where I should have been.)

  8. My version of the Ontological Argument:

    God is the most perfect hide-and-seek player conceivable.
    It is more perfect to never be found than to be found.
    God has never been found, therefore God exists.

  9. I am only half way through “The Big Picture” but I got an email from the supernatural the other day saying “I’m melting! Oh ….”

  10. I understand the point he’s making, but I’m not convinced that we can use existing knowledge to “scale up” and predict what future knowledge will or will not prove, because there are paradigm shifts in human understanding that defy prediction.

    I can remember waaay back in the early 90’s, I asked a Xerox tech if there’d ever be a copy machine with an image shift function that could move an image up or down on a copy (as opposed to just left and right), and he explained why the mechanism would be impractical. Then a couple years later digital copiers came out, bypassing the need to shift the printed image mechanically, but achieving the same result on the finished product. I know this is a goofy example, but I think it illustrates the idea.