The paradox of the supernatural


Have you ever given yourself a headache thinking about the paradox that is the Supernatural?
By this I don’t just mean to say that ancient stories of miracles and magic tricks are paradoxical, but that religion itself is a paradox; since the very idea of it is based on the fallacy of the supernatural.
The simplest way to get started with this is to consider that If something actually happens, or happened, it is, to the extent of its happening – real. And if something is real, it is, to the extent of its reality, a thing that is in nature. It does not actually matter how amazing or rare the thing is; if that thing actually did occur or does exist in the way you perceived it (and was not a product of delusion), then that thing is natural – whether you can explain it or not.
It is not without a great deal of caution that I would pick an argument with the great David Hume, but on one account I feel I simply must beg to differ. In his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume had famously determined that “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature”. Hume then proceeds to explain how we should judge the validity of a miracle by weighing the probability of the laws of nature actually being violated, against the probability of the observer being under a misapprehension. In other words, Hume was trying (quite successfully) to debunk all accounts of miracles.
The problem here is that the idea of a violation of the laws of nature is necessarily loaded with the impossible prerequisite of actually knowing everything there could ever be to know about the natural world. After all, even if it turns out that you are not under some misapprehension, how could you possibly determine that what you are witnessing is not contained within the laws of nature? (ancients used to famously assert that such natural phenomena as lightning bolts, earthquakes and solar eclipses were supernatural)
Because it is impossible to know everything there could ever be to know about the natural world, trying to prove that something is supernatural – ie NOT natural – is no more than attempting to prove a negative – a classic fallacy.
I do not mean to dispute Hume on his eloquent and sobering conclusion regarding the improbability of miracles. I am simply saying that it is lacking in economy since it is unnecessary to weigh the probabilities of an occurrence, or an existence, that is impossible in its own terms. A miracle is not improbable, it is impossible.
‘No, no, no’, I’ve heard many a religious friend protest, ‘I never claimed to know everything there is to know about nature. All I’m asking is how else can you explain something that clearly defies any scientific explanation? What else could it be but a miracle?
This very common line of reasoning also solves nothing as it swerves to avoid a collision with the above mentioned fallacy, only to slam right into another – the classic argument from ignorance. An argument asserting that a proposition is true since it has not yet been disproved. “I don’t understand how this could possibly happen naturally, therefore it must be supernatural.”
The only thing to be said for this silly line of reasoning is that it at least admits to the speaker’s limitations of knowledge. But its problem is that not only does its conclusion not follow its premise, the conclusion and the premise fly in opposite directions. It laughably attempts to establish a positive claim based on negative information – ‘because I DO NOT know something, I DO know another’. One could barely even elevate such nonsense to the level of Reductio Ad Absurdom – another fallacy itself.
All of this should be more than what any intelligent free thinking person would be willing to put up with; but religions are not content to leave it at that, as they insist on wrenching up their claims towards ultimate ridiculousness. Not only will the faithful claim things as miracles, they will claim to know exactly which deity it was who performed said miracles, and for what reason.
And finally, just to put an ironic cherry on top, the religious will often make their extraordinary pronouncements of knowledge right before, or after, admitting to being merely human creations of an ineffable and unknowable deity. Note that even the religious believers who resort to using the silly cop out of “The lord moves in mysterious ways”, still try to establish (by means of a definite article) that as awe stricken as they might be, they know exactly which deity is supposedly doing all this mysterious moving.
Such stupendously presumptuous claims of knowledge combined with such false humility are a match made in, well……… theology.
(You didn’t really think I’d say heaven, did you?)
I sometimes wonder if seminary schools teach their “students” how to concoct such bizarre religious cocktails: Take two measures of impossible claims of knowledge, add one measure of pseudo modesty, mix in large amount of sugary wishful thinking, finish with a twist of guilt and garnish with irony. Depending on the prospective recipient, this spirit can then be carefully drizzled into ‘sippy cups’ or crudely poured into large troughs for flock consumption.
Don’t worry too much about that headache. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your brain. Religious cocktails just tend to cause nasty hangovers once you start sobering up, and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.

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