Philosophically Defining the Supernatural

[Yesterday I presented a conference paper at the 112th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Languages Association (PAMLA). The conference theme for this year was “Familiar Spirits,” and I presented a paper titled “Philosophically Defining the Supernatural.” The topic relates to previous articles that I have written, both here in my blog series on metaphysical naturalism and in an earlier article here

This article represents my most up-to-date view on how to metaphysically define “supernatural” phenomena in opposition to “natural” phenomena. I discuss five areas of metaphysical distinction between the two: 1) physicality, 2) uniformity, 3) open vs. closed causality, 4) mental objects & properties, and 5) teleology. Below is the transcript of my paper, with images added from the slides of my attending PowerPoint presentation.]

Screenshot 2014-11-02 11.11.54

Halloween is a time of year when we celebrate the supernatural, being a holiday associated with the souls of the dead, witchcraft, and even (from certain quarters) the occult. The “supernatural” is something that is, by definition, different from ordinary “natural” phenomena. Often times we are able to distinguish between the “natural” and the “supernatural” prima facie, meaning that each can be identified at first glance. When we see an apple fall from a tree, we immediately recognize such an event to be “natural.” If, on the other hand, we were to see a ghost, magical spell, or vampire, we would not hesitate to call such phenomena “supernatural.” But what is the real difference that allows us to make such a distinction?

Whereas on the level of common sense the difference between the “natural” and the “supernatural” is often obvious, metaphysically distinguishing between the two on a philosophical level can be far more challenging. For example, if we were to see a witch cast a spell of fire, we would not hesitate to call such a superhuman ability “supernatural.” But how is this ability metaphysically different from a mutant (let’s say an X-man) who has evolved the ability to produce flames from his hands? Both would be superhuman abilities, but we would only consider the witch to be “supernatural.” Given that the two abilities would look the same, however, can we really make such a categorical distinction? Today I will discuss some of the different definitions of the “natural” and “supernatural” proposed by philosophers. My goal will be to show that there are certain attributes of “supernatural” phenomena that make them categorical different from “natural” phenomena, so that there can be a clear and meaningful metaphysical distinction between the two, justifying our use of these terms.

Continue reading