On the Term “Supernatural”

I dislike the word “supernatural.” It’s used to describe things that are extraordinary in the sense that they defy intuition or mundane/gross patterns of causality, but such things (assuming they happen/exist) are not actually “supernatural.” Whatever is real is natural, though nature may not behave according to the rules and limitations that we like to ascribe to it.

One might argue that this is a purely semantic concern, as people are not using the term “supernatural” to denote anything outside of reality/existence, but the word fosters the sense of a stark division between two layers or sets of phenomena or overarching principles, the natural and the supernatural, while in reality it’s all one thing—everything is natural. Perhaps the one thing has many interplaying principles of operation and maybe there are various levels or realms to it, but the levels are not necessarily starkly delineated or incompatible, nor are there necessarily exactly two of them (the “natural” versus the “supernatural”).

Also, the term encourages the discrediting of any phenomena that fall under its umbrella, because the aesthetic impression is of a realm way higher than anything conceivable, or phenomena or beings that somehow defy the natural coherency of the universe. In other words, the term ‘”supernatural” conveys a sense that the phenomenon or object in question somehow eludes the natural order of things, which would be preposterous. And so skeptical/atheist/academic/scientistic/physicalist types are prone to dismissing the idea of anything “supernatural” as non-existent, whereas using other words for those things might be conducive to seeing them as more characteristically different rather than categorically different, which could help open their minds to seeing that there may be natural principles behind them that interweave more readily with scientifically known principles and physicality.

Sometimes taking a word to its logical extreme, such as defining everything as natural, defeats the purpose of using the word. I think this is the case if we claim that everything is “natural,” in the sense of being “earthly” or “environmental,” on account of the idea that that humans evolved within nature and are a part of it therefore all of our creations, including LSD and skyscrapers, are just as “natural” as a monkey using a stick to get insects out of a tree. Even though there’s no categorical distinction between what’s “natural” in this sense and what’s not, and even though there are plenty of in-between cases where it would be hard to decide, the word is useful to describe things that clearly fall within the general theme of products of geology, evolution, etc. that are not man-made, which is obviously a very different arena by characteristic. (See also this essay on why we shouldn’t take the term “natural” to its logical extreme.) But this is not the case with the greater sense of the word “natural” as the opposite of “supernatural.” This sense of the word “natural” as I’m suggesting using it is in opposition to the term “supernatural” which could be said to be a self-contradictory characterization, rather than being in opposition to “artificial,” so it may rightly include anything that’s real. 

One might object that “natural” describes everything by definition then it means nothing, but it actually only describes real things, and we know that the word “real” is valid and useful. One might then argue that we might as well just use the word “real” instead, but the point here isn’t so much to use an alternative to the word “real” as to eliminate the use of the misleading term “supernatural.”

One might still argue that if everything that’s real is “natural” then calling it “natural” as a characterization is meaningless, but I would say that sometimes words that apply to everything that exists by definition (such as, for example, God, by some people’s accounts) confer implications as to the fundamental qualities or nature of everything (such as sacredness, divinity, holiness, meaning, consciousness, etc.), thus giving the word meaning. But then, it’s not even really necessary that defining everything as “natural” imparts special meaning, when the point is only to defy the use of the term “supernatural” as a sort of self-contradicting category which one can use to dismiss anything unseen.

Anyway, back to the subject… some people actually go so far as to define “natural” as pertaining to the physical and the so-called laws of physics. (I say “so-called laws” for reasons explained in this essay and this essay.) This definition is even reflected in one of the senses of “natural” in Webster’s dictionary. (That’s not necessarily a justification or obligation to use the word this way, as a dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive, and it’s only one of many alternative senses.) You could argue that definitions are neither correct nor incorrect, they’re just a basis for further communication, but there are implications involved, and how you frame things matters. To define “natural” as physical is to imply that what’s non-physical is unnatural and is therefore adverse and potentially unthinkable. And, as I’ve advocated for above, some people may see the natural as being all there is, so defining “natural” as physical borders on making the unfounded, scientistic assumption that nothing non-physical exists. If the non-physical is not seen as unnatural per se according to this definition (perhaps it’s seen as “supernatural” instead, whatever implications that might carry), it’s at least seen as categorically different and separate from everything we naturally know. It wooifies the non-physical.

Either way, it’s wrongheaded, mundanifying, magic-killing and life-suppressing thinking. The idea that the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution have demystified the world is a myth: the world is still fundamentally mysterious; the only thing that’s changed is that our thinking has become more narrow-minded and relegated to a thin, overlaying stratum of perception, relation, mind and its faculties. See also Notes on Science, Scientism, Mysticism, Religion, Logic, Physicalism, Skepticism, Etc.

“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” -D.H. Lawrence

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