Dawkins vs. the Supernatural

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.

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5 comments
  1. Ratioxxx said:

    I have no problem with Richard Dawkins’ definition.

    1) If ectoplasm, ghosts and telepathy will one day be scientifically explainable then THEY ARE NOT SUPERNATURAL.

    2) “God” on the other side is, by definition of most religions, beyond any scientific explainability. That is why god is supernatural; because religions define god as a “supernatural”, rationally incomprehensible being.

  2. Ratioxxx said:

    I think the big misunderstanding is the following:
    Your understanding is that it is DAWKINS’ definition of “supernatural” that ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try’.

    The way I undestand Dawkins is that he is complaining about the “believers” (my choice of word) saying ‘We will never understand it, so don’t even try’ (or ‘rule out any possibility of its ever being explained’).

    So the DEFINITION of a certain unnamed thing comes from the “believers”, not from Dawkins. Dawkins gives it a name: the “supernatural”. Maybe it was a bad choice of words. Or maybe he should have distinguished between a “per definition unexplainable supernatural” (or “god”) and a “supernatural that is potentially open to rational explanation”.

    I don’t think Dawkins or any of his skeptic followers would have any problem with ectoplasm, ghosts and telepathy that is open to scientific studies and therefore to falsification.

  3. LF said:

    Ratioxxx: first, thanks for raisining these interesting issues.

    To answer your points:

    The first one in your first comment is basically what I already said in my post: “What exists, is automatically ‘natural’.”

    Whether God is defined by (all) religions as in principle outside the realm of the scientifically explainable is doubtful, if only because most religions predate the advent of modern science. Moreover, the Christian God has allegedly descended from Heaven and walked among humans, which puts him very much in the reach of science. If he were doing that again today, he might even be available for double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of his divine powers.

    Finally, I appreciate the point of your second comment, and, yes, maybe Dawkins thinks that’s how “believers” define the the supernatural. And I repeat that even if this were their general definition, what should be of interest to a scientist is whether the potential phenomena thus referred to by the “believers” actually exist or not. That’s what you called the “supernatural that is potentially open to rational explanation”.

    Why would Dawkins make a point of saying: you can’t scientifically explain anything that is defined as not being scientifically explainable? That’s entirerly trivial.

  4. Ratioxxx said:

    1) LF: “Why would Dawkins make a point of saying: you can’t scientifically explain anything that is defined as not being scientifically explainable? That’s entirerly trivial.”

    Because that is the argument of the charlatans: “My magic is not from this world and cannot be analysed by scientific means.” (I think the chapter you are citing is about charlatans in magic.)

    2) LF: “Whether God is defined by (all) religions as in principle outside the realm of the scientifically explainable is doubtful”

    By the different book’s and believer’s accounts God has CREATED the universe and all that is inside (time, distance, gravity, logic, science etc.) so God is outside of any scientifical explainability. Try talking to a priest, rabbi, muslim prayer, or priests from other religions and ask them about their opinion if you would like to scientifically confirm/disprove the following:
    – Existence of the Holy spirit
    – Existence of an Afterlife
    – Existence of angels
    – Personal revelations from God

    The existence of God is not something that can be scientifically confirmed or falsified. How would you proceed in doing so? How do you want to confirm that god exists or disprove his existence?

  5. Ratioxxx said:

    And I forgot: It is very difficult to study potential phenomena if the magicians/mediums/believers are not willing to collaborate (because of the above mentioned argument).

    If you know of any subjects that claim to have scientifically unexplainable powers then I would be very willing to participate in such a research personally at no charge.

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