2011-03-05

Not Supernatural

I wrestle with what to make of life and this world. One of the words that sometimes comes to mind as I grope to articulate something that will make sense and be helpful – and maybe even true – is “supernatural.” I have, from time to time, said such things as, "I don't conceive of God as supernatural." I say this to try to clarify. The word "God” seems too slippery, so I reach for "supernatural” to make my meaning clearer. This doesn't work. "Supernatural" fails to add meaning.

"Supernatural” (or "not supernatural") is also too slippery. How, exactly, are we to draw the line between natural and supernatural? My Random House Unabridged offers that “supernatural” is “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” Does that help? Alas, no.

Explainability is also too slippery. Have you noticed, for instance, that Newton was thin – nonexistent, really – on the explanation for his laws? Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, says Newton. And why do they stay in motion? We have no explanation. “That’s just the way things are,” says Newton. My sixth-grade science teacher said the same thing when I asked her. (Actually, Newton had a fancy Latin way of saying it: “Hypothesis non fingo” – meaning, “I make no guess about that.”) Inertia and gravity may be “natural laws”, but they are not explained by natural law. Are we then to conclude that they are supernatural forces? Perhaps we should call them “supernatural laws."

Inertia and gravity are so ordinary that it may strike you as bizarre or perverse to suggest that they are inexplicable. Very well, let us call them “explained” just by virtue of the widely shared subjective sense that no explanation feels called for. What shall we make of the weirder end of physics: wormholes and dark matter and quantum indeterminacy? We explain X by positing Y – and eventually arrive at a Y that we have no explanation for. Why, oh, Y? Not only that, but the principles of quantum indeterminacy tell us that some things not only are unexplained, but never could be. (Oddly, physicists have a good explanation for this permanent inexplicability.)

We are surrounded by and submerged in weirdness. Driven by an urge to feel we have some grasp on things, we seek explanations. And what is "an explanation"? If any story gives us a sense (illusion?) of having a grasp on something, we call it an “explanation.” We don’t have nonsubjective standards for what counts as an explanation.

Which means that we can’t tell what is “unexplainable” (by natural law or phenomena).

Which means that we can’t tell what is “supernatural” and what isn’t.

Which means that “supernatural” (and “not supernatural”) isn’t available for careful thinking about our conceptions of “God” or “reality.”

Which means . . . ?

It’s not so much that I’m back to the drawing board. It’s more like I never left it. I stand forever before this drawing board, erasing as fast as I draw on it.

And living in wonder.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe"
Next: Part 2: "Getting Personal"
Part 3: "Saganic Verses"
Part 4: "Which Is To Be Master?"