• Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?

    Yonatan Fishman, PhD, Department of Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, wrote a really interesting paper contesting the idea that science and the supernatural do not overlap, and that there is no way to test the supernatural. The paper can be found here and is well worth a  read. I hope to give it a greater commentary in the near, not-so-mentally busy future!

    The abstract is as follows:

    Several prominent scientists, philosophers, and scientific institutions have argued that science cannot test supernatural worldviews on the grounds that (1) science presupposes a naturalistic worldview (Naturalism) or that (2) claims involving supernatural phenomena are inherently beyond the scope of scientific investigation. The present paper argues that these assumptions are questionable and that indeed science can test supernatural claims. While scientific evidence may ultimately support a naturalistic worldview, science does not presuppose Naturalism as an a priori commitment, and supernatural claims are amenable to scientific evaluation. This conclusion challenges the rationale behind a recent judicial ruling in the United States concerning the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in public schools as an alternative to evolution and the official statements of two major scientific institutions that exert a substantial influence on science educational policies in the United States. Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.

    Category: NaturalismScienceScience and religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • SmilodonsRetreat

      I agree. Any supernatural cause that affects the material universe (or energy thereof) will leave marks. Just like the invisible wind moves the trees. Those can be tested.

      I’m not sure that it’s possible to test a supernatural cause that doesn’t affect the
      material universe. Maybe there really are monsters in hyperspace. But they can’t get through unless we bring them back with us… oh, brain dump of science fiction novels and stories.

      • GubbaBumpkin

        Science also includes Occam’s razor.

    • Tony Agudo

      The link to the paper is broken.

    • Neil Webber

      Very much this. I think it was Justin Schieber in a recent RD extra debate was asked what would it take for you to change your view on God/supernaturalism and he pointed out that it would be relatively trivial for a deity to perform an act that was incontrovertibly outside naturalism, for example to write a complex personal statement inside the next banana I open, something like ‘Hi Neil, egg’s on your face isn’t it’.

      The KCA argues for a transcendent being but then goes on to stipulate purely naturalistic properties of that being: beginningless, spaceless, immaterial, timeless, unchanging, omnipotent. All of these imply concepts that are intrinsically naturalistic. In order: time, space, matter, time again, time again, and finally probably matter again, as power over what otherwise?

      In my reply to Joseph on my guest post a while ago I proposed a couple of other naturalistic properties that could equally be ascribed to a truly supernatural being outside our universe. Unknowing, as without natural mechanisms how is this being to observe us? Impotent, as without natural mechanisms how is this being to affect change to us?

      As you say there will be fingerprints of any action and these are notable by their absence. That is why the god of the gaps argument is so often presented, theists cling to that which is unexplained as their only hope that there is somewhere it’s written ‘Egg’s on your face Neil’.

      • Neil Webber

        This was supposed to be a reply to SmilodonsRetreat, not sure how to move it…

    • Daydreamer1

      I wonder why the only people that make use out of this are people who have not found scientific evidence for their beliefs?

      I am not entirely convinced that people aren’t just creating a category called ‘cannot be detected by science’ and then saying ‘science cannot detect cannot be detected by science’.

      1) ‘Cannot be detected by science’ is constantly revised by what is detected by science. So science has the primacy. Cannot be detected by science has never successfully arbitrated what science cannot detect. This blows out of the water any hard claim that there is a line that science cannot cross – a magisteria it cannot enter. It not only regularly enters it, but historically it performs massive land grabs. Like saying the French cannot cross the channel while they keep taking more land and moving your picket fence.

      2) Anyone claiming this hasn’t noticed that people talk to each other and that in psychology that is an accepted way of getting data. OK, it isn’t physics, but nor is it something ‘science cannot see’.
      If the supernatural is something undetectable how is that every Tom Dick and Harry can bloomin well detect the thing with little more than their eyes, ears and perhaps mind.
      It isn’t sciences fault then when we ask people all their stories are muddled cultural dependencies and they can’t do anything with them, but there is plenty of data.

      3) When people say science cannot cross that line what they really mean is that they don’t like sciences current interpretation of the data generated by claimed supernatural events and experiences. Note that there is a huge amount of data, but that it is the interpretation people are disagreeing with. Just your local psychic could transform the relationship between science and the supernatural. They could barge straight through that line in the time it takes me to pick up my bacon sandwiche and turn round to see what all the fuss is. Any psychic who could actually perform could do that in an afternoon and the world would be changed forever. In the metaphor of a boundary that science cannot cross the boundary is more like the Canadian border than the Israeli wall. Except when people say it is a category called ‘cannot be detected by science’ and then say ‘science cannot detect cannot be detected by science’ – so ner ner ner ner ner.

      4) Hence, and the main point, you would only know that something was absolutely undetectable to science is science could detect the thing and tell you. Otherwise your just making crap up.

      Also I don’t think you get to say that science cannot touch something just because we can’t build a particle accelerator for it when the other branches of science are getting along fine by chatting to people when what you really mean is that your upset that science hasn’t confirmed (or worse, has disproved) your pet ideas.

      • SmilodonsRetreat


        1) Yes, but science is limited to material things with known forms of energy. Is “supernatural” just an unknown form of energy? Ok, then we’ll detect god when we get the right detector. And all will be well. But, and this is critical, the supernatural isn’t hidden in anything that we can presently detect. And even if it was, it wouldn’t be supernatural would it… just unknown.

        2) No, it’s not science’s fault, it’s peoples fault… when they see things and ascribe a meaning to it that’s not really there. People have died chasing Venus thinking it was a UFO.

        3) To transform it, we’d need repeatable, verifiable, falsifiable, evidence… which hasn’t happened yet. And, (I suspect) because the people with “supernatural powers” know that they are conmen, there will never be that evidence. Therefore, it’s not science.

        4) I said that the RESULTS of supernatural intervention in the world would be detectable. This has never been detected in a repeatable, testable, falsifiable way… therefore, it either doesn’t exist or it’s not science.

        To paraphrase Niven “Magic, psionics, mental powers, either don’t exist or are utterly useless… otherwise, evolution would have been selecting for them all along.”

    • GubbaBumpkin

      I like the bit about naturalism not being a presupposition of science, I have been saying the same thing. Rather, naturalism is a reasonable provisional conclusion drawn from a half millenium of scientific investigation.

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