Atheist Society Talk by Graeme Lindenmayer, Tuesday 12 June 2012

The nature of the supernatural

The supernatural is a hypothetical entity that might exist separately from and independently of the material world.

I don’t believe that there is such a thing as the supernatural. Also, I don’t believe that there is no such thing as the supernatural. I think it is impossible to know either way. This talk is about what it might be like if it exists.

Throughout the world, and throughout history, people have believed in the existence of something additional to and distinct from the material world. If we are to consider and argue about this we need to know what these people think about this supernatural entity. But there have always been wildly different ideas of what this entity is like.

One idea is that the supernatural is the only thing that exists. This could mean that the material world, ie., the entire universe, or the multiverse, is supernatural. This would describe the entity that Pantheists and some Buddhists believe in. But it is just the same world as we know it, except that it is not material: it is supposedly supernatural, and may be conscious.

A more common belief is that the supernatural has unlimited power to see, hear, know and do everything in the material world – everything imaginable and unimaginable.

So this supernatural is intrinsically associated with every part of the material world, and/or is infinitely superior to, and encompassing of, the material world. These concepts don’t necessarily mean that the supernatural created the material world (and all that is in it, including us), but the claim is usually made that it did.

Also, this entity is immortal and eternal. Immortal means never ever dying, in contrast to everything that is material, from stars to planets to people. Eternal has connotations of being "outside of" time, with no beginning or ending, no such thing as before, no such thing as after.

This is the active God of the monotheistic religions.

More specifically, this same unlimited entity is said to:

Are such characteristics likely to typify something infinite and supernatural or something finite and material? Many of them make the supernatural a vastly extended version of a combined human hero, ruler and sage. Indeed, this supernatural seems to be mainly concerned with humanity, peripherally concerned with the rest of Earth’s biota, and totally unconcerned about anything beyond the solar system.

Descriptions of God sitting on a throne or being Father and Son, or having some of the less attractive characteristics of human nature, make him a creature of a very specific period in time in a miniscule part of the solar system, which is an infinitesimally small part of the universe.

Such a God would have seemed feasible when the world was thought to be centred on the earth, but not if the universe is accepted to be as large as cosmologists think it is.

A God with unlimited power and knowledge would never be surprised, so would have no cause to be angry, and would have no need to be worshiped or served. (In what way is God disadvantaged if someone does not worship or serve or believe in him?). Being unlimited would mean, of course, that the supernatural could be vindictive, capricious and anything else.

But why should anyone suppose that being supernatural implies being unlimited?

There are in fact beliefs about different and lesser kinds of supernatural entities. Some of these entities are associated with the unlimited God. The most notable of these is Satan, also known as The Devil, who tries to tempt those who believe in God to disobey God’s commands and God’s wishes. Surprisingly, God does not prevent Satan (who, like Santa, has lots of little helpers) from doing this.

Other lesser kinds of supernatural entities include: the very human-like gods of the ancient Greek, Roman and Nordic religions; the Hindu gods; the benign and the destructive spirits associated with most other religions; the spirits of trees, watercourses, mountains and other topographical features; and the spirits of deceased people.

These entities may:

Again, these mostly have the characteristics of the latter part of the history of planet Earth, and particularly of one recently evolved species, Homo sapiens.

How would it be possible to know that, if there were such an entity as the supernatural, it would have any of the characteristics that I have just described?

The more detailed a description or explanation of something is, the more evidence is needed to justify it. And in all cases, any contrary evidence will need further explanation, which must be consistent with all other relevant information and explanation.

People who believe in the existence of any kind of supernatural entity get their ideas about it from a range of sources, such as:

But are these teachings, evidence and implications reliable?

Where for example did the originators of the texts and oral teachings get their information? For the texts that relate to events that occurred before the existence of human beings, the only explanation is by divine revelation. But this becomes a circular argument. Furthermore, the texts of the different religions contradict each other and also are generally self-contradictory. And the texts contain details that have been shown by scientific and historical evidence to be incorrect.

The claimed evidence relates to things like answers to prayers, or to fortunate or unfortunate coincidences, or to selected occurrences that seem significant. These can usually be readily and satisfactorily explained without invoking the supernatural, and this undermines the argument that they are evidence of the supernatural. And since the helpfulness of the supernatural is given or withheld capriciously, irrespective of the "worth" or beliefs of the beneficiaries, the supernatural does not seem like a very caring entity.

Many of the cases seem unlikely acts for an entity that has the great powers and knowledge attributed to the supernatural. When this is pointed out to believers, the common reply is, ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. But if God’s ways are mysterious, how does anyone know which, if any, acts to attribute to supernatural intervention and which to the normal workings of the world?

Also there are claims of people having personally seen, or spoken with personages who are regarded by the various religions to be either aspects of God or God-like supernatural beings. Other people have claimed they have seen unaccountable images of such beings.

Such claims presuppose knowledge of the nature and appearance of these purported supernatural beings. In recent sightings, those who appear "in person" are often described as being dressed in ways that are depicted in religious pictures painted in the second millennium AD, which is more than a thousand years after they purportedly lived on Earth. Many people become convinced that all or some of these supernatural sightings are genuine. However, without prior belief there would be no reason to believe they are any more genuine than claims about abductions by extraterrestrial beings, whose descriptions generally resemble illustrations in contemporary works of fiction.

Other kinds of evidence are the sightings of ghosts, talking to the dead through mediums, clairvoyance ("seeing" things that are out of sight), out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences. All of these have been demonstrated to have material explanations.

Aspects of the material world that are claimed to imply supernatural characteristics include that the world is too beautiful, too wonderful or too complex to "have occurred by chance", so the supernatural is the creator of beautiful, marvellous and complex things.

The arguments based on beauty and wonder are really about human characteristics. Our ideas about what is beautiful or wonderful, and what is not, are partly dependent on our own personal characteristics and partly on what we are accustomed to. The arguments about complexity relate to the diversity of species on earth and to aspects of the structure of the universe. They are known respectively as intelligent design and the anthropic principle.

There is no evidence to support the idea of intelligent design. It has been effectively refuted by the theory of evolution, which is amply supported by evidence, and by the mathematics of probability. (In 2006 I gave a talk on this, and one of the chapters in The Australian Book of Atheism is an expanded version of that talk.

The anthropic principle states that a supernatural entity created the universe and in particular the planet earth just for us. More specifically, it says that if the fundamental constants, which according to science determine the nature and structure of the universe, did not have their precise values, then there could have been no universe, no solar system with a planet like earth and a moon like ours, and no Homo sapiens. So this may seem convincing evidence for the existence of the supernatural.

Scientific arguments against it are that
the universe could have evolved to have these characteristics, just as species on Earth have evolved and each has its particular and very complex characteristics,

or that our universe is one of a great number of universes in a multiverse, and it happens to be the one with these characteristics,

or that the universal constants don’t really need to have been so precise for the universe to have developed galaxies and people,

or, as some evidence is beginning to show, the values of the universal "constants" were a little different earlier in the history of the universe.

A different kind of argument is that there is no reason to regard humanity, or any species, or any planet or any other structure in the universe, to be the specific reason for the universe to exist, or to have its particular characteristics. It is extremely conceited to think that the universe, or the multiverse, was made just for us.

I think the anthropic principle is a rationale based on the unlikeliness of complexity, and that it does not demonstrate the existence of a supernatural entity. Material explanations can account for it, and also for the other the cases claimed to be supposed evidence or proofs of the supernatural If a valid material explanation exists then there is no justification for invoking the supernatural.

But I think there are three aspects of the material world that might provide some justification for the existence of some kind of supernatural entity. These relate to life, to consciousness and to beginnings.

The significance I give these claims is that, while there is no evidence to support them, they are explanations for things that I think have no valid scientific explanation, and may even be intrinsically beyond scientific explanation. Many scientists and others are confident that scientific explanations will some day be provided, or have been provided already.

In the meantime, these provide the only justification I can think of for believing that something supernatural might just possibly exist, and for tentatively implying characteristics to it. And these would be the only characteristics that I think can be justifiably attributed to the supernatural. I will now discuss what they might be.


Two years ago I gave a talk to the Atheist Society called When does a Life Begin?. In that talk I pointed out that there is as yet no plausible explanation of how life could emerge from inanimate matter and that many people think that life must incorporate some supernatural element. Unless or until it could be demonstrated that life is purely material, a supernatural explanation might therefore be (provisionally) allowed.

The characteristics of life (as we know it) suggest that a hypothetical supernatural would need to:

And there is an additional task that this supernatural entity might have needed to perform. It is generally assumed that life on Earth arose from a progression of events, starting from relatively simple chemicals, and advancing to more complex structures and eventually becoming a primitive organism. This may have occurred naturally, but some scientists think it would be an extraordinarily unlikely process. So it could be argued that such an unlikely progression, which appears to have occurred only once on Earth, needed supernatural guidance.

Given that the lives of each organism, or even of each piece of living material, seem to be at least partially separate from those of the others, it would be necessary to conclude that the supernatural can be divided into separate bits that are not completely in communication with each other, and not necessarily in harmony.

There would seem to be no basis for any further conclusions about why or how such a supernatural entity would produce and sustain life.

If life on Earth needs a supernatural element, presumably any extraterrestrial life would also.


Last year I gave a talk to the Atheist Society called The Hard Problem of Consciousness. In that talk I said that the content of consciousness is entirely dependent on the conditions within the brain.

I also said that all the materialistic explanations of consciousness are actually explanations of intelligence, that consciousness is different from intelligence and that no theory has yet been suggested to explain how the brain could produce the characteristics of consciousness.

So unless or until it could be demonstrated that consciousness is purely material, a supernatural explanation should be provisionally allowed. This explanation would need to include that the hypothetical supernatural:

Given that the consciousness of any organism seems to be at least partially separate from that of other organisms, it would be necessary to conclude that the supernatural can be divided into separate parts that are not (completely) in communication with each other, and not necessarily in harmony. It might be envisaged that, just as the material world can be considered as one entity whose components can combine in ways that allow individual stars, planets and organisms to develop, so might the supernatural also have corresponding processes in relation to both life and consciousness.

So the supernatural entity responsible for consciousness might be the same one as is invoked to give life to inanimate matter, and that both might be involved in any extraterrestrial life that might exist.


The aspects of beginnings that I think are scientifically inexplicable are how the material universe and its antecedents began,
and what is the ultimate fundamental entity in the descending sequence: molecules; atoms; subatomic particles; strings, ….?.

Some scientists postulate that the material world began through a natural evolution of universes. A version, endorsed by Stephen Hawking, and more recently by Lawrence Krauss in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing, purports to answer this "ultimate" question by proposing a sequence in which something (which then starts evolving) arises out of nothing. By nothing Hawking and Krauss mean what scientists refer to as free space (or the quantum vacuum). However, I think that free space is very different from nothing. Free space has properties that determine the speed of light and the speed of gravity, and that produce quantum phenomena, such as subatomic particles continually appearing for a fleeting existence and then ceasing to exist. Free space is an integral part of the material universe. So free space is something, not nothing.

Nothing cannot have any properties, or even the potential to do or be anything whatever. Nothing does not include any element of time, neither "time as we know it" nor any other possible kind. It is hard to see how a theory based on nothing could be compatible with any of the assumed characteristics of the material world, or how it could be tested.

Any entity with the potential to change into something that could eventually become the material world would need to have had a beginning and an explanation of that beginning. If it did not need a beginning it would be very different from what we currently think of as possible in the material world. And anything that cannot be possible in the world is usually regarded as absurd – or supernatural.

However, many of the things that a few centuries ago would have seemed absurd and inherently incapable of being tested have since been demonstrated by modern science. There is quantum behaviour, where a particle can be a wave and a wave can be a particle, and where something can be in two places or in two different conditions simultaneously. There is dark matter and dark energy, which account for 96% of the universe, but we know almost nothing about them. It may be that things that would look quite absurd to us now will be commonplace in some future science.

So what could resolve the current mystery of the beginnings? The answer could be either some new type of science - or something supernatural.

For a supernatural entity to be an explanation of material beginnings, that entity would need to:

These are clearly incompatible with what we presently think about the material world. But they would make the supernatural a possible alternative to Hawking’s concept of nothing that the material world evolved from.

But there is still the question of the "underlying nature" of whatever the material world is made of. So the supernatural would need to have one additional property:

This seems to be the limit to anything specific that we might be able to deduce from attributing the beginnings of the material world to the supernatural. There would be no basis for thinking the supernatural acted intentionally or was grand or complex. It could be like the matrix of squares in which very simple cellular automata can develop into extremely complex structures by obeying a few simple rules.

So the supernatural could start the development of a vast and diverse range of forms within and beyond itself. But it would not produce the ready-made world complete with the earth.

I think this supernatural of the beginnings would probably be the same entity as the one responsible for life and consciousness.

The atheistic view is that scientific findings have progressively undermined beliefs the supernatural causes such things as lightning, bad harvests, sickness and healing, so all that is left are the things that have as yet no scientific explanation. So when all remaining "gaps" are filled in by further scientific discovery, the credibility of the possible existence of a supernatural entity will have been destroyed.

But there are now some scientists, for example Marcelo Gleiser in his recent book Imperfect Creation, who think that science as we now envisage it may be intrinsically unable to solve some of its other present mysteries. In the present concept of science the universe is unified and consistent in all of its characteristics. But Gleiser argues that there is no reason to think that the phenomena described by the theory of relativity and by the phenomena described by quantum theory should all be able to be covered by one single unifying theory. He is a distinguished scientist and his arguments go into the fundamental details of physics and cosmology, so this is not a crack-brained idea.

My view is that if Gleiser happens to be correct, then some of the attributes that I provisionally attributed to the supernatural might turn out to be aspects of one or more separate but inter-working parts of the material universe. But material or supernatural, characteristics similar to those I have suggested above would be needed. These would include the ability to exist without having had a beginning.

If there were to be a new kind of science that explained the mystery of the beginnings, it would not necessarily explain the difference between inanimate matter and living organisms or consciousness, but it might.

But most scientists and philosophers are confident that material explanations of life and consciousness are already available, or soon will be. Some, perhaps most, physicists think a physical explanation of the beginning of the material world (which may, if necessary, still include the concept of the multiverse) has been or will be produced.

There has been a tendency, going at least as far back as the bronze age, for humanity to think that it has just discovered the ultimate truth. This was nicely put in the 18th century in Alexander Pope’s couplet:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night.
God said ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was Light.

But there is still a lot of darkness about many of "Nature’s Laws" – and also about the supernatural.