What is the difference between the natural vs the supernatural? One might think this would be an easy thing to define but drawing a sharp line is surprisingly difficult, as I will show in this post.
The question is of critical importance for many Tarot practitioners.
I would wager that most Tarot folks believe in some form of supernaturalism. Many would say that spirituality cannot really exist without some kind of extra-physical dimension of existence.
However, many Tarot practitioners reject that assumption and practice a strictly secular approach to the Tarot that eschews the supernatural altogether.
Moreover, I would wager that most academic philosophers are naturalists of some sort and take the rejection of the supernatural to be the default, rational position of any self-respecting scholar.
My contention is that defining what it means to reject the supernatural is far trickier than many naturalists suppose.
What does it mean exactly to not believe in the supernatural?
Defining the Supernatural
First, let’s get this out of the way: the term “supernatural” is not easy to define from a philosophical perspective. Usually, the rejection of supernaturalism implies a commitment to philosophical naturalism, which might be defined as:
Only natural phenomena exist.
But this is clearly circular, for the definition of “naturalism” contains the word “natural.” That is, you cannot know what naturalism means unless you already understand naturalism.
One might try to define naturalism as the view that:
Supernatural phenomena do not exist.
But this runs into the same problem because you have to define what is meant by “supernatural,” which might be defined as:
That which is beyond nature.
Again, we see that this definition of naturalism presupposes we understand the nature and limits of nature itself, which is circular.
This feature of circularity is not unique to the concept of “naturalism.” Many concepts in our language resist easy definition in terms of clearly defined necessary and sufficient conditions.
For this reason, many people adopt a kind of pragmatism, made famous by US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when tasked with defining obscenity and distinguishing between erotic art and hard-core porn, made the famous remark:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
Thus, I propose that “supernaturalism” admits of a similar “paradigmatic” analysis: it is difficult to define exactly but a commitment to supernatural belief entails but I know it when I see it because I have an intuitive grasp of paradigmatic examples.
A Pragmatic Approach to the Supernatural
Armed with this pragmatic attitude, we might suppose, quite intuitively, that people who reject supernaturalism say things like “gods and spirits and ghosts do not exist.”
That is to say, rejection of supernaturalism is a kind of “non-belief” in supernatural entities like gods, spirits, ghosts, etc. It is a non-belief in the idea that there exists a “layer of reality” that exists outside of the natural, physical world e.g. an “astral dimension” or “spiritual reality.”
Another way to reject the supernatural is more epistemological or methodological, that is, concerned with standards of evidence and belief.
For example, the rejection of supernaturalism might mean “one ought not to believe in the supernatural because one ought not to believe in things that cannot be empirically proven.
And since by definition the supernatural is outside the empirical realm, one should not believe in the supernatural because if there can be empirical evidence of the supernatural, it is thereby by definition not supernatural.”
One might make a weaker claim and simply say, “One should not believe in the supernatural because there, to this point, has never been convincing empirical evidence of the supernatural. I don’t rule it out completely, but to this point, no such evidence is forthcoming.”
On this latter, weaker view, supernaturalism is not rejected a priori as irrational, but rather, one simply withholds belief because no convincing evidence has been put forward.
This is much like Bertrand Russel’s famous teapot: technically, he is agnostic as to the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun, but he is an atheist or non-believer with respect to it because there’s no positive proof of it.
Rejecting the Supernatural
However, it is not always clear what a “rejection of the supernatural” entails as a belief system.
For example, does rejecting the supernatural by definition exclude the belief in ghosts?
Here we have to distinguish between the explanans and the explanandum.
The explanandum is the observed phenomenon that cries out for explanation and the explanans is the thing that explains it.
For example, suppose you see some smoke in the distance. The observation of the smoke is the phenomenon to be explained. You are the only one who saw the smoke.
Consider two possible explanans. One is that you hallucinated the smoke. Another is that the smoke was caused by a real fire.
If you had recently ingested a psychedelic, someone might say the former is the best explanans. If you seemed of normal mind, the latter might be the best explanans, all things considered.
Consider the ghost example again.
It is an indisputable fact that people claim to experience ghosts. That is the explanandum: there is a phenomenon, “seeing ghosts,” and it cries out for an explanation.
If you are a supernaturalist, you might say the explanans is that the cause of seeing a ghost is that the ghost really does exist, albeit it “exists” in some kind of non-physical dimension of reality that is interacting with the physical, natural world.
If you reject supernaturalism, you might say that the explanans is that the cause of seeing a ghost is some kind of hallucination, delusion, or illusion caused by the brain, a natural phenomenon.
However, if you reject supernaturalism, is one required to say that all ghost phenomena must be explained by hallucination and delusion?
Not necessarily. And this is where agnosticism and humility enter into the picture.
Agnosticism About the Natural vs Supernatural
It is a fact that current science in the 21st century is incomplete. We do not know everything there is to know about consciousness or how it relates to the world.
Therefore, it seems possible that the explanandum of seeing ghosts will be explained by some principle or natural phenomenon that we do not yet understand.
In other words, future scientists might be able to account for the phenomenon of people seeing ghosts in terms of some future science.
That is to say, the rejection of supernatural explanations of ghosts does not entail that the phenomenon of seeing ghosts must be explainable in terms of our current understanding of the natural world.
One cannot rule out with certainty that future scientists won’t make some important discovery about consciousness, physics, etc., that provides a naturalistic explanation of ghosts that we cannot currently fathom because our science is less mature than future science.
With that said, since we do not live in that future, and we only have available to us our current theories and understanding of the universe, it would be wrong to say that our current best naturalistic explanations of ghosts are wrong because it’s possible that someday in the future scientists will discover some aspect of reality that explains the ghost phenomenon.
Since it seems good practice to not believe a scientific theory unless you have evidence for it, and since by definition we do not have such hypothetical future evidence, we should refrain from believing that ghosts must not be hallucinations if we have no other good explanans.
This is where agnosticism flourishes. Science is not in the business of “proof.”
“Proof” is a principle of mathematics, where mathematical theorems are proved from logical derivations from axioms. But in science, the best we get is probabilities, inferences to the best explanation, inductive logic, mechanical models, laws, etc.
We might say that hallucinations are the best explanation of ghosts according to the currently available best evidence.
However, can science, as it stands right now, claim to have a complete explanation of all aspects of the explanandum of the paranormal? For many cases, the most scientifically respectable position is: we don’t yet know everything about this phenomenon.
It would be patently unscientific to say we know all paranormal phenomena must be explained as hallucinations because, again, it’s not impossible that future scientists will find some natural explanation to explain the paranormal that is not simply “it was a pure hallucination.”
Perhaps there will be some new way to understand the relationship of consciousness to reality that will explain paranormal phenomena in ways we cannot yet fathom.
Can we be reasonably confident some cases of the paranormal are explained by delusion? Certainly. Can we be reasonably confident all cases, now and in the future, have the same explanans? The limits of epistemology prevent us from saying this, for it is equivalent to proving a negative.
So if you take a secular approach to the Tarot and you say “I don’t believe in the supernatural” that does not necessarily entail you don’t believe in “spooky things.” After all, one might believe the phenomenon or explanandum of “spooky things” is real without thereby being committed to the idea that it is not a natural phenomenon.
It might just be a natural phenomenon that we don’t fully understand because science is incomplete.
Is Precognition Supernatural or Not?
Another example is “precognition,” or “knowing the future.” This is another phenomenon where people report, for example, that they dreamed something and then the next day it came true. Another example would be the psychic experiences reported by many users of Tarot cards.
For example, Eden Gray wrote, “When one reads the Tarot cards frequently, it is difficult not to become convinced that some power is present that directs their distribution.”
One explanans for this is that it was just a coincidence. Another explanans is that somehow their brain was influenced by the future.
Does the rejection of supernaturalism thereby entail that the explanans must be that it was a coincidence? Not necessarily. Although we can be confident that coincidence explains many cases, we cannot therefore conclude it necessarily explains all.
Consider the well-studied phenomenon in quantum mechanics called “retro causation.” This is still an open topic of study, but it seems as if quantum mechanics has some pretty unintuitive ideas about the “arrow of causality” such that the present might cause the past instead of the past always causing the present.
Given that our scientific understanding of how time and causality are open topics of scientific investigation, it does not seem theoretically impossible that precognition could be explained by some future scientific discovery that upends our current understanding of whether the future can influence the present, or some other currently unfathomable scientific theory.
In conclusion, the rejection of the supernatural still leaves plenty of room for belief in the reality of “spooky” phenomena. It’s just that, given the incompleteness of science, it might be the case that the natural world is spookier than we might imagine. In other words, reality might be stranger than fiction.
The point of all this is not that any of this “proves” that ghosts “exist.”
The point is that scientists are still understanding what the natural world is capable of. We do not yet understand how consciousness relates to matter and future discoveries might upend our current understanding of the natural world. In other words, when we say “supernaturalism is false,” that thereby doesn’t entail we know the limits of what the natural world is capable of, or what phenomena it might be capable of creating.
The most important part is that rejecting supernaturalism does not entail the rejection of supernatural phenomena. The phenomenon or explanandum of people experiencing things they perceive to be “supernatural” definitely exists.
People experience things all the time that cannot as of yet be given a complete scientific explanation. But we can acknowledge the reality of the phenomenon without thereby assuming that the explanans is a supernatural astral dimension that exists beyond the natural world, or something equivalent.
Thus, the proper attitude of the non-supernaturalist is that of agnosticism and humility.
We can recognize that the entire history of science is one long history of different theories of the natural world being shown wrong. It seems, therefore, wise to assume that our current understanding of “natural phenomena” is incomplete and will likely be shown to be wrong by future scientists.
Of course, that doesn’t prove that our current theories are wrong. It just means that we should not place 100% certainty onto our current understanding of the natural world, and that humility is an entirely appropriate attitude for people trying to form a scientific understanding of the world.