A Few Words in Favor of Natural over Supernatural Explanations

05 Mar

northernlights-antonyspencerIs the world arranged into the two separate but intersecting spheres of the spiritual and the natural, or just the natural?

The best argument, by my lights, against the existence of a supernatural sphere takes the form of what’s called an abductive argument: an argument to the best explanation. Take the issue of human psychology. Is the best explanation of moral decision-making purely natural, or is there a better supernatural explanation on hand?

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s a lot of agreement among philosophers (though of course, not complete agreement) about what constitutes a good explanation: falsifiability, consistency with data, simplicity, consistency with background knowledge, and so on.

So which kind of explanation–supernatural or natural–about human moral psychology does better, according to the standards just outlined? Well,

the major problem with supernatural explanations is that although they may be consistent with the data, they are typically non-falsifiable.

I cannot falsify the proposition that there’s a soul making moral decisions, for example. (How could I?) On the other hand, I can falsify the proposition that the prefrontal lobes are involved in moral decision making. One point for natural explanations, none for supernatural.

Then there is the issue of simplicity. The least “ontologically bloated” explanations are usually right. Again, one for natural explanations, none for supernatural.

And on it goes. As I see it then, natural explanations in principle fare far better than supernatural explanations, whether they be about human moral psychology or questions about the universe at large.

One common objection is that it’s certainly possible this or that supernatural entity exists. But this misses its mark. While it may be possible that souls interfere with our brains, that does nothing to establish how probable the notion is. The relevant question centers around what good reason we have to think something is true; not merely what is possible. After all, it’s possible our behavior is constantly being manipulated by invisible pink unicorns. But of course, we have no good reason to think that’s true.

One final word in favor of natural over supernatural explanations. The history of science is the history of natural constantly overrunning supernatural explanations. On this line of thought, the naturalist’s objection to supernatural explanations might be pithily phrased “Why bet on the horse that’s lost every race it’s ran?”


Leave a Reply

Refresh Image
  1. Nick Wallace

    December 7, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Einstein – “the only thing that keeps me from learning is my education.”
    Deducing facts from existing knowledge only leads to stagnant thinking. If an inventor or scientist based ingenuity and future research purely off of what he / she already knows, would we then have anything to invent or discover. Or should exploration be based off the unknown driving us to find answers we don’t have obviously in front of us. How boring of a world would we have if people did not explore the unknown with nothing more than a hunch.
    Discover magazine just came out with an article “85% of the universe is missing. The world’s top physics detectives are teaming up to find it.” Interesting is that of that 15% we have defined – we don’t even fully understand it! So how then is humanity so bold to assume we know so much? If you understood only 15% of how a computer operated would we be able to build one? Yet this is what I believe many do with the questions of the unknown, God and the supernatural. I believe it’s out of insecurity that we as humanity must assume that every answer has a logical explanation before we die. How many generations before us of brilliant individuals have lived and died, only to be found wrong in the coming generations? Will we be much different?

  2. Nick Wallace

    December 7, 2011 at 9:06 am

    I do believe we are ignoring one quantitative tool of measurement that we do use in the process of scientific reasoning, that is, human perception and experience. In researching pain many discoveries have been made by using human perception of pain alone. One individual might have a high tolerance while others have an extremely low tolerance… so how does one define such subjective perceptions. Well, they are doing it and doing it well, I might add. Human perception is a powerful scientific tool to better understand human processes of experience. Like how does one scientifically prove if a movie is good or not, or if a sunrise is beautiful, and a women is attractive? Are these not completely subjective to the one experiencing them? Just because we can’t scientifically prove that experience does not make beauty, love and attraction any less real – actually the contrary. Beauty, love and attraction are extremely powerful mechanisms that have historically built and / or destroyed humanity.

  3. Nick Wallace

    December 7, 2011 at 9:08 am

    So. Likewise, why do we ignore the possibility of God just because we cant prove it outside of human testimony and experience.

  4. Nick Wallace

    December 7, 2011 at 9:16 am

    The Danish Pain Research Center ( is one of the Pain Research institutes I was talking about.

  5. Andy Walters

    December 11, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Nick, you raise many important questions in your comments, all of which I cannot respond to here. But I’d like to respond to what I take to be their upshot, namely asking how, in light of the fact that we know so little about the universe, we can be certain of our beliefs about the unknown and the supernatural.

    First off, I’d like to say that my position about God is not that I know he (it) doesn’t exist; instead it’s that I don’t think there are any good reasons to believe God exists. This position, by my lights, is not incompatible with our incomplete understanding of the universe because it merely maintains that given the examination we’ve made so far, so far we haven’t discovered any good reasons for thinking God exists. The burden of proof would seem to be on folks such as yourself, who presumably believe in a deity, to show the evidence for thinking such a being exists.

    So then, when you ask “why do we ignore the possibility of God just because we can’t prove it outside of human testimony and experience”, the answer is that we don’t. God may well exist and we just haven’t found him; for my part that doesn’t bother me. Life on other planets might exist too, but until it is found I’m prepared to say I don’t have a good reason to think it exists.

    It is the contention of atheists like myself that when we use the best tools we have for finding out what things are true, we just don’t find any good reasons to think God exists.

  6. Nick Wallace

    December 14, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Andy. First, thanks for the clarification. I’m sure if I finished reading some of your other blogs it would of most certainly stated what you just said but thanks for taking the extra time to outline it for me anyways. Second, I apologize in advance for being so long winded, but unfortunately I don’t know how to do it any other way.

    Well, with that being said…

    ———— Are there no facts and proof for the existence of God?
    This is how I would frame the discussion… when a tree falls in the forest does it make a noise if nothing is there to hear it? Obviously yes and lame analogy but none the less, with nothing to prove it, one would be left with the powers of deduction alone as their case. In science and philosophy deductive reasoning is taught as a scientific method for validating or invalidating facts. Einstein coined the vary process of elimination and simplification through his “thought experiments,” which led to the Theory of Relativity.
    So for the topic of GOD or NO GOD, lets take the same simple process of elimination.
    If someone came up to me and said “do you want a billion dollars you idiot,” I really do not believe too many of us would waste a minute on the insults but instead cut straight to the weightier matter – which is how do I get a billion dollars?
    If a man came up to me and asked, “what do you want to wear before I kill you?” Again, the question would not be “what should I wear” but would be “why do you want to kill me?” That cuts straight to the heart of the matter and addresses the point that ones life depends on.
    Now lets apply these principles to the question of God vs. No God. Hitchens, Dawkins and others alike do a great job at defining many of the variables of such a question –whether God is good, picking apart the flaws of religion and even addressing evolution opposed to the creation account, but have little advice or evidence that would firmly establish there is no God. They do hit attributing factors, but appear to be more caught up in the insults of history and thereby ignore the direct question. One can come to the conclusion that God is not good, but still be left with the question, is there a God?
    I really believe the origin of the universe is that billion-dollar question and is the constant we are looking for that would likely wash out many of the variables. If there were another option for origin then there would be no need for God.
    So, at the birth of our universe whether you believe in the Big Bang, Evolution, creation or some combination of all three you are still stuck with the question of what started it all.
    For the Big Bang, can nothing collide into nothing and explode, creating what we have now? For Evolution, where did the first organism come from that began the evolutionary process? In other words, can something evolve from nothing?” Or if some other life form started ours, what started there’s? Can Evolution, the Big Bang or other intelligent life be responsible for Origin, which by definition precedes their vary existence? With all three hypotheses you are still left with no answer for origin, yet we treat them as if they are.
    With the method of deductive reasoning and with the facts at hand and projected to come, one is still left with the answer, no. Evolution and the Big Bang could be the direct outcome of the origin of our universe but they cannot reasonably or factually account for the creation of it.
    It is odd to me that in this discussion – the powers of reason only leave us with faith as an option. We have no evidence and no observations that even remotely lead us to discovering an answer for origin so we are left with our imaginations as the answer. So, even in humanity’s finest efforts we are still left with believing in something we cannot see.
    I would even be so bold to suggest that Agnosticism and Atheism require even more faith. At least God gives us a reasonable explanation for origin while the others leave us with the option of waiting another 1000 years before hoping to find something.