Richard Dawkins is arguably the spiritual father of the new atheist and skeptics movements, whose followers claim to know what the world is like. Or, more to the point, who claim to know what the world is not like. No ghosts, no telepathy, no ectoplasm. Science does not support the belief in such phenomena, and, some say, it supports disbelief in them.
I assume Dawkins would agree with this, but then he surprises me with what strikes me as an utterly pointless definition of the supernatural that supports his case by definition. In The Magic of Reality. How we know what’s really true he writes:
Now I want to… explain why [the idea of the supernatural] can never offer us a true explanation of the things we see in the world and universe around us. Indeed, to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all and, even worse, to rule out any possibility of its ever being explained. Why do I say that? Because anything supernatural must by definition be beyond the reach of a natural explanation. It must be beyond the reach of science and the well-established, tried and tested scientific method… To say something happened supernaturally is not just to say ‘We don’t understand it’ but to say ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try’. (p.21f. paperback edition)
When science probes new territory, it has to accept the phenomena it may encounter as at least potentially existing. There might be ghosts, however unlikely we think this is. If there are, then they are automatically in the realm of things that can potentially be explained by science.
Dawkins, however, defines the supernatural in a way that rules out by fiat that there could ever be a “natural” explanation for it. This definition is not only not useful, it dodges the real issue at stake: whether there is or is not a certain class of phenomena. The label ‘natural’ attached to ‘explanation’ is merely a red herring. When a phenomenon exists, it exists, and it certainly does not care whether it finds a “natural” explanation.What exists, is automatically ‘natural’.
But maybe Dawkins is arguing that, as a matter of fact, his definition of the supernatural is the one most people endorse when they use the word, in particular, when they claim existence of its referent? Well, perhaps some people do hold that the point of invoking the supernatural is to deny that science will ever explain everything. Perhaps, that is their way to find solace in a world they experience as increasingly demystified by the scientific endeavor.
It is hardly the majority view, though, and even if it were, the issue still remains that to attack it is to tear down a strawman. The scientifically relevant question is only whether any of the phenomena variously referred to as ‘supernatural’, ‘paranormal’ or ‘extrasensory’ exist. I’m surprised Dawkins, in his quest to educate the masses, has to cheat his way around it.